PHOTOS: Matthew Gaulin
Rolling pastureland and towering oak trees that lined a two-lane road on the west end of Fruitland Park have vanished as dump trucks and earthmovers pave the way for big-dollar homes, lush golf courses and nightly entertainment.
The Villages — happy haven of more than 100,000 retirees — is connecting to a town where building permits are filed about once every four months. No wonder a significant number of Fruitland Park residents are cringing at the major changes looming on their horizon.
The Villages latest expansion will bring 2,050 homes, 18 miles of streets and over 4,000 senior citizens to Fruitland Park.
The Villages building project will nearly double the city’s population and likely congest Miller Street/County Road 466A (the main thoroughfare to U.S. Highway 441/27) and South Dixie Avenue (the route many take to Wal-Mart).
More significantly, allowing The Villages to build in Fruitland Park will also alter the political landscape as residents of The Villages seek seats on the city commission. That’s precisely what happened when The Villages expanded into Lady Lake and Sumter County.
On the other hand, Fruitland Park will gain significant tax revenue, jobs, shopping and dining venues and medical facilities … and golf cart paths.
One only needs to look at Lady Lake to see what The Villages can mean to a sleepy little community.
Before The Villages jumped from the mobile home side of the highway and began building homes in 1988, Lady Lake had its library in a railroad car, no facilities for softball, soccer or baseball, two restaurants and worn-out police cars. In addition, town officials and cops crammed into a rundown block building that served as city hall.
Bill Reed, who served for 10 years as a Lady Lake Town Commissioner (until he was voted out of office for voting against The Villages’ proposal to provide its own fire/ambulance service), says there’s no question Lady Lake prospered because it worked with The Villages.
“There was give and take that allowed for the town to become a better town,” Reed said. “For instance, there were things we did for the developer that allowed him to move faster than he normally would have been able to. And those things also improved the town.”
Wildwood is about to be transformed by The Villages expansion into Sumter County. The city’s population, currently at 7,100, is expected to reach 50,000 by 2030.
And, thanks to The Villages, Wildwood will have the money to improve infrastructure to accommodate the growth. In 1998, The Villages paid Wildwood about $2 million for the rights to provide water and sewer to homes within five miles of Wildwood’s utility system. The Villages also agreed to pay $100 per home for utility rights on future homes, which could mean an additional $2 million for the city.
Life as Fruitland Park residents know it will surely change. But will it be for the better, as it was in Lady Lake?
We put that question to two men with extensive experience dealing with The Villages as the sprawling retirement community expanded — Reed, and long-time Wildwood mayor and commissioner Ed Wolf.
Here’s what they say Fruitland Park residents can expect … along with a few words of advice on how city commissioners should deal with management of The Villages.
No more business as usual at city hall
Reed — “I don’t know all of Fruitland Park’s ordinances and regulations, but some will have to be changed. We rewrote so many ordinances. A lot of ordinances had to be modified and altered.”
Goo gobs of money
Wolf — “Talk about a shot in the arm as a far as a tax boost. They’ll be flush with money. I don’t see any downside. Fruitland Park commissioners should be able to do all kinds of improvements with all the ad valorem tax dollars The Villages will be pumping in.”
The Villages can be quite generous
Wolf — “We did two deals with them. One was a commercial annexation where we got $1 million. I don’t regret dealing with them at all.”
Reed — “There were things that The Villages did for us and things we did for The Villages. Lady Lake’s initial softball complex was built by Harold Schwartz. Secondly, they took our defunct sewer plant and helped us get out of substantial debt.”
Expect more negotiating
Reed — “Dealing with The Villages requires a lot of negotiation, a lot of discussion. That’s probably the most important thing because there’s a lot of things Fruitland Park is going to want to insist on and a lot of things The Villages will want to have that may fall out of current ordinances and so on. I think the first thing they have to do is establish a line of communication and rapport with The Villages’ upper echelon.”
Pick your battles
Reed — “They don’t always get their way. The location of our town hall is the perfect example. The Villages wanted us to build town hall on town square in The Villages so it would be golf cart accessible. We said, ‘No, it’s not going to be built on your town square.’ They didn’t like that. They came around to our way of thinking when I told them, ‘You have to understand that we’re building a jail in the town hall. Do you really want police cars bringing inmates to jail while people are dancing on town square?’”
Don’t back down
Reed — “There are things you’re going to agree on and things you have to stand fast on to protect the town. We traded a lot. For example, I remember when The Villages came to us and said, ‘We want you to ensure there’s adequate police protection in our shopping center.’ We said, ‘Fine. We’ll give you what we can afford, which wasn’t much. We ended up negotiating an agreement where they paid us $100,000 a year for 30 years if we agreed to assign two policemen.”
Wolf — “I see a huge benefit. There will be road improvements and they’re going to be able to upgrade water and sewer. I can’t see a downside.”