A History of Sun City Center

by John Bowker


Chapter 1

Del Webb and the cow pasture

Our story begins with one of the largest traffic jams ever witnessed in southern Hillsborough County! The grand opening of Del Webb's Sun City had been advertised for weeks in the press, on radio and tv all over the country. And when that first week of business arrived 41,000 people came to see what this retirement community experiment was all about!

Del E. Webb, Jr. was a remarkable entrepreneur. He had built a solid reputation in the heavy construction industry coast to coast and in 1960 he opened the first phase of the Sun City retirement community in Arizona. The great success of each of his ventures prompted him to seek out other sites in popular retirement regions.

In late 1960, Del Webb visited this 12,000 acre cattle ranch running from the Manatee River on the south to 19th Avenue on the north, and from U.S. 301 on the east to the approximate present alignment of Interstate 75 on the west.

Del Webb was escorted across the gently rolling fields here by a cowhand named Berry Roberts (for whom Berry Roberts Drive is named) and additional orientation was offered by Gene Smith who later would be our Maintenance Department Manager for many years. Early in 1961, Del Webb purchased the entire property from Universal Marion.

Groundbreaking was on May 10, 1961. By then Del Webb had established New Year's weekend, 1962, as the official opening for "Del Webb's Sun City, Florida." Del Webb demanded five things to be ready on opening day: model homes at an affordable price, recreation and craft facilities, a hotel with a good restaurant, a post office and a shopping center.

Architecture? Simple! He just took the plans for the arts-and-crafts building in Sun City, Arizona, and copied it in here. Our original hotel was a direct copy from his Arizona Sun City; same for the Town Hall and all the first model homes along Cherry Hills Drive! The North Lakes Golf Course was also to be ready by New Years Day. To help assure this Berry Roberts was put in charge of the course, and Berry continued on for some years as manager of that golf course.

A post office was built to occupy the corner location in the shopping plaza (now occupied by a travel agency). The only problem was what to call this new community since a town named 'Sun City' already existed just south of Ruskin. The compromise name "Sun City Center" was approved by the postal authorities, but for nearly a decade the developer still referred to this as "Del Webb's Sun City, Florida."

The weather in 1961 cooperated with the builders in every way and everything was in place right on schedule. And then disaster struck.

Two weeks before Christmas, 1961, the temperature dropped into the teens. Most of the decorative flora had not developed root systems and was destroyed by the killer frost. The accompanying ice storm broke much of what was left. Water pipes to the model homes burst. Del Webb's Sun City was a mess with only a couple of weeks to go before the "doors" would open.

The local Hubbell Nursery Company took one look at the damage and rushed to the rescue. They sent trucks all over south Florida locating replacement plantings that had not been frozen, brought them back and in one week the beauty of our community was restored. Spirits were high, holiday celebrations were the happiest and all was in readiness.

Now picture the situation. Opening day weather was just fine (it rained for several days later in the week). The word was out that this was one lovely retirement setting. People could get here only by using the narrow Ruskin-Wimauma Road from U.S. 301 or U.S. 41.

By 9 o'clock that morning traffic was backed up on all directions on both U.S. 301 and U.S. 41, and cars entering North Pebble Beach Boulevard by then found no place to park and could only make a U-Turn to try to escape the jam by leaving!

The bottom line was that a lot of people liked what they saw here in spite of the traffic. Sales exceeded expectations and the new venture was off and running.

The first residents moved in during April, 1962 -- several families all on the same day. The prices they paid ranged from $11,650 for a two-bedroom, one-bath house, to $17,350 for a house with three bedrooms and two baths. There were no garages, just carports. Real estate taxes were somewhat under $200 those first few years; water and sewage charges ran under $10 a month.

Making new friends here was easy. All during 1962 new residents were automatically inducted as Charter Members of the "Hi Neighbor" Club. Thus everyone immediately 'belonged'.

Del Webb had learned a wrinkle from his development of his Arizona Sun City. He insisted that all home owners belong to a volunteer resident "Civic Association" because it is to this body, he wrote, "that all community facilities are donated by the Del E. Webb Corporation." By August, 1964, the residents incorporated the Civic Association ("CA") for representing all owners in contracts with the developer, and to maintain the ownership of recreational and communal property. Six years later a Home Owners Association ("HOA") was incorporated to deal specifically with problems of home ownership and external relationships. In 1986, the CA and HOA members voted to consolidate into the Sun City Center Community Association (SCCCA). At this writing, membership in the SCCCA is required of Sun City Center residents and is also available to former residents who have maintained their SCCCA membership but who now reside in Lake Towers, the Courtyards or Aston Gardens.

The community was a beehive of activity right from the start. Residents took to the new arts and crafts facilities -- new clubs were formed, a library was opened in the Town Hall, and a Woman's Club had been founded that established a Meals-On-Wheels program by mid-1963. The all-volunteer Emergency Squad was organized in 1964. The Minibus system was inaugurated in 1971 and, shortly after, an all-volunteer fire company was started under the leadership of resident Ed Powers.

But economic pressures had been building on the national and international scene for several years, and retirement home investment by the target audience for Sun City Center had slowed to a trickle. To make matters worse, the hotel was destroyed by a fire in May, 1971. Three months later Del E. Webb Corporation announced it would discontinue development here. Indeed, the Del Webb era in Sun City Center ended with the sale of all undeveloped property early in 1972.

On to Chapter 2 - After Del Webb

This narration was prepared by John Bowker in part from the records of the Sun City Center Historical Society. Special thanks to Boyd Neuborne, Phil Lange and Janet Wilson. Readers interest and contributions to the collection of documents is solicited.