By Charles Nelson
In April 1925, could you have been tempted to buy land and possibly live right next door to ‘America’s Sweetheart,’ Mary Pickford? Land sale pitches like this one were used by cunning promoters to lure ‘starry-eyed’ investors to a brand-new community to be built in Southern Hillsborough County.
The community, south of the Little Manatee River, was to be called Sun City (not to be confused with today’s Sun City Center). Planned for a 400-acre site south of Ruskin on today’s US 41, the town of Sun City was being built to lure Hollywood into making Hillsborough County its permanent home: a new ‘Hollywood of the East.’
Today, the only ghostly reminders of the once ballyhooed community are its street names (each designated in honor of famous silent film stars and studios of the era; one example: Chaney Dr. in honor of Lon Chaney, ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces!’).
By January 1926, a mere nine months after its well-publicized announcement, this ‘can’t miss’ investment opportunity was a completely failed project. The developers quickly disappeared from Hillsborough County: broke, disillusioned and dishonored, suffering the fate of many other questionable developers in the ’20s.
Speculative land boom and bust cycles have occurred several times in Florida’s past. Without question, the Great Land Boom/Bust of the 1920s was the most severe. Even the recent 2004-2009 mortgage-fueled crisis, while fresh in our minds, cannot compare to the frenzied real estate market of the ’20s where only a few of the early investors made money before the ‘house of cards’ fell, leaving many penniless.
Tampa Bay was not immune to land fever. In Southern Hillsborough County, land speculators attempted to ‘cash in’ with potentially lucrative land sale schemes. Some were successful. James B. Gibson developed ‘Gibsonton-on-the-Bay’ in 1923 as a fishing resort. Some were not. Ruskin Heights, east of Ruskin, sought sales through land auctions at variable prices with little long-term success.
In fact, throughout Florida, most planned developments failed in the 1920s. Locally, only a few, like Davis Islands and Temple Terrace, were examples of long-term success. Below the Little Manatee River, Sun City was not particularly unique in trying to ‘cash in’ on land sales during the Florida Land Boom.
At its heart, it was a land sale scheme, like all the others. To ensure a successful outcome, however, Sun City developers used the film ‘hook’ to lure investors. Everything depended on the movie industry deciding to come to Hillsborough County and anchor the development.
On March 21, 1925, Sun City developers announced the public sale of land contracts. Advertising hype in area newspapers fueled an early bandwagon reaction for the movie colony’s speculative potential.
In April 1925, local speculators put down deposits but quickly sold those contracts, at a profit, to other speculators. Few intended to actually build homes. It became clear that successful development depended on the movie industry coming to Sun City.
To guarantee that relocation, Sun City developers erected a $300,000, state-of-the-art movie studio. However, the glittering studio wasn’t nearly enough to bring the industry to Sun City. Other than two, long-forgotten comedy shorts, the studio remained empty. In 1932, creditors forced the dismantling of the studio, netting a meager $1,500 against thousands of dollars in debt.
Developers failed to lure Hollywood to make movies in Sun City and to build a community. A model home, built in 1925, was the only structure built, other than the studio. (That model home still stands on Chaney Dr. just off US 41.) But little else remains of this planned, ‘star-studded’ community.
After January 1926, there was no mention of Sun City in local papers. The planned ‘Hollywood of the East’ had failed quickly.