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The Sunshine of Life : Over-55 Set Basks in Arizona Community

ASSOCIATED PRESS

In 1960, few people were sure the idea would work.

Popular theory had it that retired people would never move away from their families and friends to live in a community for senior citizens, Jane Freeman recalled.

Today, the memory brings a slight grin to her face.

Sun City is not only celebrating its 35th anniversary this month but is the model upon which a growing number of retirement communities are based.

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Freeman, a volunteer at the Sun Cities Area Historical Society and co-author of a book written for the city’s 25th anniversary, knows what makes the concept work.

“People stay active out here,” she said, holding a directory listing reams of recreation opportunities. “I think that’s why we have a tendency to live longer.”

This Del Webb Corp. development about 10 miles west of Phoenix wasn’t quite the first of its sort, Freeman said.

Elmer Johns, a builder from Lakewood, Calif., developed nearby Youngtown in 1954, but the project never really got off the ground. Freeman believes it was because developers didn’t pay enough attention to recreation.

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“It didn’t provide a lifestyle,” agreed Phil Dion, Del Webb chairman and chief executive officer.

Dion said Webb and his colleagues improved on the idea by building golf courses and shopping centers to attract residents before the first homes were sold.

“Del Webb did a marvelous job when he planned this out,” said AnnRose Hering, who moved here three years ago from Illinois. “He was way ahead of his time.”

Sun City’s wide streets, lined with orange trees, bear witness to that planning. It is difficult to find a stick out of place on either the immaculate, curving thoroughfares or the all-weather, low-maintenance yards filled with rocks, saguaro cacti and palm trees. Everything is tailored for residents’ convenience.

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“It’s utopia,” said Hering, who stopped to chat with friends at the Sundial Recreation Center before heading to a water aerobics class. “There’s not one thing that has been left out.”

At the Sundial--one of seven multimillion-dollar recreation centers here--residents can participate in everything from swimming and weight training to sewing, ceramics and art classes. The building also houses a mineral museum, photo lab and shuffleboard court.

Eleven golf courses have been built over the years, and designers are making each one tougher as they find retirees are better golfers than they first thought.

Golf carts are a common sight in carports and on the roads, where they’re legal transportation.

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“You can do as little as you want to; you can do as much as you want to,” said Louise Meyer, who moved to Sun City in 1971. “That’s the life here. It keeps us moving, keeps us young.”

Del Webb officials say they market a lifestyle as well as homes. The idea is increasing in popularity but proved intriguing even in 1960, with more than 100,000 people visiting Sun City within three days of its opening.

“It was a massive traffic jam. Mr. Webb couldn’t even get there for the grand opening,” Dion said.

The corporation sold 1,050 homes that year; the prices were around $8,500. A simple, 660-square-foot home of pink cinder-block on Oakmont Drive was the first to be occupied. It now houses the historical society.

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Today, Sun City has about 45,000 residents; an additional 25,000 live in Sun City West, 14 miles northwest of Phoenix, which opened in 1978. Beginning prices for typical ranch-style homes are about $100,000.

Del Webb Corp. has opened additional Sun Cities in Tucson, Las Vegas, Palm Springs and Roseville, Calif., since 1987. It’s now opening a new Sun City near Hilton Head, S.C., and has plans to break ground in Georgetown, Tex., by mid-1995.

The “active adult” communities are proving a lucrative business. Del Webb’s profit for the year ending June 30, 1994, was $17 million, on revenue of $510 million.

The aging of the baby boom generation set off industry growth in the 1980s. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 31.8 million Americans were 65 or older in 1991, and the number will grow to 56.6 million by 2010.

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Officials also say Americans are retiring earlier with higher incomes and living longer.

Del Webb capitalizes on such demographics to market the Sun Cities, which are off-limits to permanent residents younger than 18. At least one household member must be 55 or older to buy in.

Children may stay with residents for one or two years, Freeman said, but only after the guardians obtain legal approval.

“On one hand, I think it’s kind of cruel,” she said. “But if you open it up, it’s no longer a retirement community.”

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But Hering said the community does not lack the sound of children’s voices, particularly during holiday periods.

Many residents say they are too occupied to miss the cross-section of society they left behind in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.

“I’m racing into the sunset, but when the end comes, I won’t even know it because I’m keeping so busy,” said Fern Overlook, a Sun City resident since 1986. “They say it adds 10 years to your life.”


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