The Bell Recreation Center looks like a vintage 1970’s shopping mall, solid walls of rusticated block with a few glass front entrances framed by dramatic roofs, the kind of Class B shopping center that might be occupied by Payless Shoes, Work’n’Gear, and a nail salon. But that tired exterior is deceiving. Inside, Bell Recreation Center pulses with life: aerobics, bowling, swimming, crafts. It also houses the Sun City Visitor Center, which Paul Hermann’s run for fourteen years. Paul will retire next month. His successor, Polly Corsino, is already on board to facilitate the transition.
When Del Webb developed Sun City in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, his company handled marketing. When the 27,465-home community was fully built out in 1978, Del moved on to Sun City West. The original still needed a marketing arm to promote the community and welcome visitors from all over the world who come to witness the world’s first 55+ retirement community. “A group is coming in from China next week. The government wants to start a community there it calls Silvertown. The whole world looks to Sun City; we’ve had a 56-year start on how to do this.”
The four original house models, circa 1960, sold for $8500; air-conditioning cost $600 more. Now, there are dozens of housing styles scattered across Sun City, including townhomes and garden apartments. Turnover is low, less than 250 homes are on the market today, although prices are about ten percent lower per square foot than in adjacent communities.
Paul explains, “The covenants and restrictions require that at least one person over age 55 live in a household, and no one under 19 is allowed. The only exception is, if a spouse dies and the survivor is under 55, he or she can remain.” Each household is assessed $462 per year for recreation fees, which provide access to the seven recreation centers and pools, eight golf courses, and over 125 clubs. “Anybody with an idea and 25 participants can start a club. The newest one is darts. My favorite is the bike club; it doesn’t need any rec center space ” There is a small greens fee for golf rounds and a club entry fee that varies between $2.50 and $30 per year, “depending on how fancy they want the food to serve at meetings.”
Sun City has always attributed much of its success to the fact that it’s amenities were realities, not promises. When the first models opened, miles away from anything else in Phoenix, a recreation center, a 5&10, and a grocery store opened as well. Today, the US 60 commercial strip that bisects Sun City has a full range of conveniences. Del Webb provided land for churches, assisted living centers, nursing homes, and a hospital, so people could age in place.
Today, the biggest challenge to aging in place in Sun City is transportation. Golf carts are permitted on all streets with speed limits below 35 mph; they offer an economical and playful means of getting around this town focused on fun. But once a resident no longer drives, transportation becomes a challenge. “SCAT, Sun City Area Transit, used to run a twelve passenger bus, but it went out of business six years ago. Now, we have discount cab vouchers. A person can get a cab anywhere in Sun City for four dollars a ride.”
Sun City is old enough to need capital improvements. The community assesses a one-time fee of $3500 whenever anyone purchases a home. This is used for all community projects over $300,000. In the past decade each of the rec centers has been renovated, and there is $8.6 million in the fund. “In 56 years we’ve never had a special assessment or gone into debt.” That’s a pretty good track record.
How will we live tomorrow?
“I don’t see an end to this type of community. We’ve been here 56 years. There are more than 400 55+ communities in this country, over 50 in this county alone. People used to retire to rest. People retire now to be active. We have a 90-year-old who plays in our softball league. Activities become meaningful. One of our residents wanted to play golf until he was 100. He made it to his goal, and died two months later. He didn’t have another goal.” – Paul
“I’ve been here three weeks and never seen camaraderie like we have here.” – Polly
“Here, it’s easy to make friends. Shared ages, shared backgrounds, lots of activities. In Sun City we will continue to live the way we do. The activities will change, but our style of life will remain. If you’re looking for the best value in the country – low fees, no debt, lots of activities, Sun City can’t be beat.” – Paul