Once it was fields of watermelons and other crops. Now it is a place called “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown,” and Pete Wahl watched it grow.
Story: Chris Gerbasi // Photo: Fred Lopez
In early 1995 in The Villages, most of the land west of Morse Boulevard was vacant, County Road 466 was just two lanes, and Lake Sumter Landing wasn’t on the map.
Pete Wahl, who was managing all of Lake County at the time, received a job offer from the fledgling Villages Community Development Districts.
“When they offered me the job up here, I went home and told my wife,” Pete says. “I said, ‘I just accepted a job in The Villages as district administrator.’ She says, ‘The Villages?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She says, ‘What are you going to do the other four days of the week?’
Pete wound up doing plenty.
As administrator of the Village Center CDD, he oversaw the district departments during the early development of Spanish Springs Town Square. Other than the square itself, only a church and Katie Belle’s restaurant were taking shape.
Of course, that would change.
“I remember meeting with [developer] Gary Morse and he took me down and we stood on the corner and he told me exactly what was going to be on every piece of vacant property,” Pete says. “And I thought, ‘Oh, boy.’ ”
Pete later became district manager of the Sumter Landing CDD, as Janet Tutt took over the Village Center. After Tutt became the sole district manager in 2008, Pete “retired” but continued as community projects director for the developer. He guided the southern districts’ growth, which included Eisenhower Recreation Center, a fire department, and other public facilities around Brownwood Paddock Square.
“One of the joys of the job was watching that stuff come from pretty much the cosmos, the atmosphere, and watching it all come together and pretty much work the way it was designed to work,” Pete says.
He grew up in a Minnesota town of 1,329 people. His father was a farm equipment dealer, and Pete started working behind the parts counter at age 12.
“I think that’s probably the place I really came to understand what the meaning of customer service was, and I’ve focused on that my entire career,” he says.
After 21 years in Brevard County administration, Pete spent “three of the longest years of my life” battling the Lake County Commission as county manager. After the 1994 elections, the makeup of the commission shifted from pro-growth to no-growth, and he asked to have his contract terminated as of March 1995.
The pro-growth advocate couldn’t have found a better new job as he watched The Villages rise from the ground under developer Gary Morse and his father, Harold Schwartz, who began the community with a mobile home park east of U.S. Highway 27/441.
“I was baffled by the vision of Gary Morse,” Pete says. “I mean, he could describe what he was going to do almost down to the color of the building. He was that finite of vision. And they made it fun. The Morse family hires you, throws the keys at you and says, ‘Run it like you own it, and come see us if there’s a problem.’ They don’t micromanage.”
While Gary’s style was to remain in the background, Harold was out in the community.
“Harold was an interesting guy,” Pete says. “I won’t say he was as much as a visionary as Gary, his son, but Harold always had the title, ‘Leader of The Villages.’ ”
One of the strengths of The Villages is the bond among people working for the same cause, Pete says. CDD 6 Supervisor Peter Moeller says he developed an excellent working relationship with Pete, and they’ve become good friends over the past 10 years.
“He saw The Villages through its initial growth,” Peter says. “He did a yeoman job putting the organization together, especially district property management and the recreation department, the two huge areas. He did a fine job.”
He describes Pete as giving, understanding, and charitable. Pete has served on the boards of The Villages Charter School and Lake-Sumter State College, worked with the Lake Sumter Children’s Advocacy Center, and mentored students through Take Stock in Children.
CDD 3 Supervisor Gail Lazenby has seen Pete’s charitable nature up close as a fellow member of the Rotary Club of The Villages. He has watched Pete turn the club’s chili cook-off/home and garden show into a significant moneymaker each year, raising funds for food pantries and scholarships.
“A lot of people talk a good show—Pete turns that thought into action,” Gail says. “If something needs to be done, he’s the first to step up and make sure the task gets accomplished.”
Pete’s also not shy about dipping into his own wallet, Gail says.
“He’s a guy with a big heart and big ideas, and a guy who follows through,” Gail says. “I have tremendous, tremendous respect for the man because, as I said, he gets things done. He’s very focused on what’s important to the community.”
Pete can’t seem to stop giving—or retiring. He left his Villages post in 2011, but Mark Morse, Gary’s son, asked him to fundraise for the Moffitt Cancer Center, which provided care at The Villages Regional Hospital. He performed that task until he retired again in early 2013.
Then one day that spring, his phone rang. State Rep. Marlene O’Toole was on the other end, explaining she needed to open a new office in Sumter County because of redistricting and telling, not asking, Pete to be her new aide. Last year, after Marlene ran for state Senate and lost in the primary, Pete retired yet again.
The fourth retirement might stick.
Pete, who will turn 72 in April, wants to spend more time at his Village de Allende home with his wife, Nancy, a retired kindergarten teacher. Their daughter, Molly, and her husband, Keith, also gave them a grandson last summer.
Pete feels lucky to have been in the right place at the right time for his “fun ride” in The Villages.
“What’s really fun is knowing that it’s going to continue to roll,” he says. “The Villages is like a well-oiled machine. Everybody shares the same goals. Everybody shares the same vision. Everybody shares the same value system.
“Would I do it again? Yeah, in a heartbeat, if I wasn’t this old.”