By Charles Nelson
Here’s a trivia question for you. What Eastern or Southern Hillsborough community has a direct link with the New York Yankees? Well, it’s Sun City Center, the brainchild of former Yankees owner and real estate mogul Del E. Webb.
Several Hillsborough towns boast of historically unique characteristics that initially, at least, once defined the community. For most, however, those historical antecedents don’t describe that community today. For example, Keysville is no longer a lumbering community, and Ruskin is no longer a community based on socialist principles.
One notable exception is Sun City Center. Webb was a baseball man, to be sure, but also one of America’s preeminent builders/developers. He envisioned a new, self-contained, active retirement community in Southern Hillsborough County based on his wildly successful 1960 Sun City developed in Phoenix, Arizona. He transported those ideas to Florida by creating Sun City Center in 1961. Today, 70 years later, that town remains true to Webb’s founding vision.
At first, Webb was skeptical about exporting his successful Arizona model to Florida. He was, after all, a Phoenix resident, and many of his enterprises were ‘out west.’ Yet, because of his control of the Yankees, he was also aware that the northeast corridor had millions of potential retirees looking, perhaps, to move to warmer places. So, Webb put aside his reservations concerning hurricanes, alligators and swamplands and visited a sprawling 12,000-acre cattle ranch between Wimauma and Ruskin, along U.S. 301. He found his site and finalized the purchase of 18,000 acres in January 1961. In May 1961, he broke ground on his new community and promised an opening day of January 1, 1962.
Webb vowed that any prospective residents would not only find six affordable model homes ready for their inspection on January 1 but also be able to tour and examine a completed, fully supportive community that would include:
• Paved and named streets
• Electric, water, sewer, stormwater, and telephone in place
• A town center with meeting rooms, arts and craft facilities, and a resort-style pool
• A new, modern hotel and restaurant available for prospective home buyers
• A post office and completed shopping center
• A nine-hole golf course, and more.
Webb knew that infrastructure would have to be operational from the beginning to support a community built far from established resources. As a result, construction to achieve all those promises was fast and furious. For example, Webb’s construction crews built the brand-new King’s Inn in only five weeks.
Success was achievable because Webb borrowed heavily from his Arizona community. Crews recycled architectural, building and community plans from those already erected in Arizona, shaving significant time in development. Pre-cut lumber frequently arrived by train in Wimauma, and the weather for construction cooperated. Everything was in the developer’s favor, although Mother Nature did have a final surprise for Webb threatening, albeit unsuccessfully, to dampen his plans.
In December 1961, two weeks before the grand opening, a crippling freeze destroyed nearly all the flora that brightened the new community. Undaunted, Webb’s crews sent out trucks all over Florida to bring back healthy plants. Gardeners quickly installed those replacements in front of model homes, recreation buildings and King’s Inn. What they couldn’t plant they painted green, and the community sparkled for its opening weekend of January 1, 1962. That first week, 41,000 people visited Sun City Center.
The speed with which Sun City Center went from empty scrubland in 1960 to a thoroughly welcoming community in the spring of 1962 would astound modern developers. The first homeowners, Frank and Mildred Ward, didn’t just move into their new home on April 20, 1962; they found all the promised amenities already in place.
Sun City Center was fully established by mid-1962, and the community has flourished since that time. Although there have been financial challenges and several subsequent owners/developers, Sun City Center continues to thrive as an active seniors-only community, true to the dreams of its developer and baseball mogul, Webb.