Photo: Norma Lopez Molina
"You get to live among Indians in your own age group," says Iggy Ignatius, who operates a community for Indian immigrants in Tavares with his wife, Rani.
Retirement enclaves in Florida
Around Florida, some retiree communities are giving new meaning to the word ‘niche.'
From a union-built enclave of retired letters carriers in Polk County to a haven for car buffs and Rvers in Marion County, retirement communities are attracting residents who want to be with like-minded people.
“With nearly 80 million Baby Boomers in the U.S., you could build a retirement community for Grateful Dead fans and fill it quickly,” says Andrew Carle, founding director of the Program in Senior Housing Administration at George Mason University.
The Villages, with its predominantly white, non-Hispanic population in Central Florida, is perhaps the state’s biggest example of a culturally and ethnically homogenous retirement community, but there are plenty of others, many occupying much smaller niches.
Colleges, for example, have created options for retired alumni who like the ambience of their alma mater. The University of Florida attracts alumni back to Gainesville with a retirement community aimed at lifelong learners. Eckerd College in St. Petersburg developed and later sold the College Harbor Retirement Community and continues to operate a lifelong learning program called the Academy of Senior Professionals. A similar project tied to the University of Central Florida also is in the works.
Four years ago, Iggy Ignatius, who came to the U.S. from India in 1979, opened a retirement community in Lake County for Indian immigrants. ShantiNiketan offers Indian food, yoga, Bollywood movies and the camaraderie of people who share the same birth country.
Ignatius says that as people grow old and face their own mortality, they want to be around “their own kind.”
“When you’re retired and not working anymore, you truly have come to a point where you can spend the rest of your life in peace,” he says. “People want to sit with somebody and talk about their childhood days.”
To some, niche communities can seem segregationist or anti-social. Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, author of “Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide,” says that people who surround themselves with like-minded others can become less tolerant of those with different opinions.
Carle counters that niche retirement communities are about choice rather than exclusivity. Even empty-nesters who ditch suburban houses for an ethnically diverse, multi-generational condominium are carving out their own niche, he says. In a sense, the urban Boomers are part of the niche retirement trend, too.
“It’s about people having choices to live where they feel comfortable,” he says.
While Florida’s retiree population gives it a head start in catering to the niche community market, the popularity of places that revolve around a common background or interest means more competition for the state as a retirement destination.
Even a northern or midwestern college town with a bleak winter, for example, could attract retirees to a retirement community centered on their alma mater. A gay retiree might prefer an LGBTfriendly community in New York or Boston to a more generic place in Florida.
“Wherever it’s located is less relevant than the niche,” Carle says
At 51, Iggy Ignatius was pondering retirement. Born in India, he had immigrated to the U.S. as an MBA student and worked for three decades in various marketing and technical positions.
In 2008, after struggling with the decision of where to live in retirement, Ignatius bought land outside of Orlando in Tavares and started a 55-and-over condo community catering to Indian immigrants.
ShantiNiketan (Sanskrit for “abode of peace”) appeals to those who would retire to their home country if not for Americanized children and concerns about health care access in India, Ignatius says.
One draw is the community’s Indian food. ShantiNiketan serves vegetarian dishes with traditional Indian spices and sauces. There also are multi-faith prayer rooms, daily bhajans and a yoga-meditation hall.
“You get to live among other Indians in your own age group and share stories about growing up in India,” says Ignatius, now 60. “It fulfills the needs for which they wanted to go back to India in the first place.”
ShantiNiketan opened in 2011 with 54 independent living condos. An additional 120 units have since been completed and sold for between $160,000 and $200,000. Monthly living expenses, including homeowners association dues, property taxes, utilities and an optional meal plan, amount to about $1,100, Ignatius says.
With an estimated 300,000 retired Indians in the U.S., ShantiNiketan continues to grow in Lake County and plans to expand to California, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas. Ignatius also sees potential in catering to retired immigrants from other countries, such as China and South Korea.
“Our children will not want to live here,” he says. “But there are first-generation immigrants coming to this country every day.”
Lake Weir Preserve Marion County
When Bruce and Marie Bedell began looking at places to retire in Florida, they knew they didn’t want a house next to a golf course with HOA dues and RV parking restrictions.
The Connecticut couple owned a 2008 Tiffin motorhome and planned to spend more time traveling in it. Three years ago, they moved to Lake Weir Preserve, a new, Rvfriendly retirement community near the Villages in central Florida. Every summer, they hit the road in their prized RV.
“We’ve traveled pretty much up and down the East Coast and we’re starting to venture out West,” Marie says.
At Lake Weir, the Bedells, who owned and operated a small business in Connecticut for 35 years, live in a custom-built house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, a twocar garage — plus another garage big enough to park the RV. “Living here is more about the garage than the home,” Marie says.
That’s the idea, says Lake Weir Preserve spokeswoman Adriana Rosas. “Imagine a 1,500-sq.- ft. House and a 2,000-sq.-ft. garage with three bays and a car lift, fully AC’d.
“We probably have one couple who doesn’t have toys. Everybody else has an RV, motorcycle, boat or classic car.”
Located on 400 acres in Marion County, Lake Weir Preserve is still in its early development stages. So far, it has built and sold about 30 custom homes ranging from $200,000 to $600,000, says co-managing partner Neil Schuster.
Besides specialized storage for their “toys,” residents enjoy the camaraderie of the community, he says. “They talk about where they’ve been and where they plan to go.”
Oak Hammock Gainesville
In the late 1990s, the University of Florida developed Oak Hammock in Gainesville to appeal to former students like Gail and Robie Robinson. The Robinsons, who first met each other at UF more than a half-century ago, moved to the retirement community in 2013 after working and raising a family in the Orlando area for four decades. A UF law school graduate, Robie is a founding shareholder of the GrayRobinson law firm.
The Robinsons say attending football games at the Swamp and listening to lectures by UF professors are the top perks of retiring to Oak Hammock.
“They’ve put a lot of effort into creating an environment where people can continue to grow,” Gail says. “Both Robie and I are taking a course on genetics research. It’s easier for us to do activities that we like here.”
About 50% of Oak Hammock’s residents are alumni or former faculty and staff, says marketing director Star Bradbury. The community encompasses 136 acres near UF and boasts a 93% to 95% occupancy rate, she says.
Residents pay entry fees ranging from $100,000 for a small apartment to more than $600,000 for a 2,350-sq.-ft. house, plus $2,300 to $6,800 in monthly dues.
“We have a lot of active Gators, but some people just like university towns,” Bradbury says. “They’re politically active, well-traveled, savvy people. You’ll hear it over and over again — the best thing about Oak Hammock is who lives here.”
Nalcrest Polk County
The idea of building an enclave for retired letter carriers originated in the early 1950s after William Doherty, the late labor leader, toured niche retirement homes in Europe.
The idea proved popular with Doherty’s union. And in 1962, the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) began construction on a retirement community near Lake Weohyakapka in Polk County.
Nalcrest (short for NALC Retirement, Education, Security and Training) is now home to nearly 750 retired letter carriers and their spouses. The 153- acre community, owned and operated by NALC, has a wait list of about two-dozen would-be residents.
Gary Gose, a retired mailman from Dayton, Ohio, and his wife, Karen, moved down in 2009. Gose says he and his union cohorts enjoy sharing work stories and don’t worry about keeping up with the Joneses. “We have a solidarity. Everybody helps everybody,” he says.
Nalcrest consists of 66 buildings with 500 apartments that vary from $365 to $520 a month. Amenities include a pool, gym, auditorium, softball field, tennis courts, golf driving range, bocce ball courts and horseshoe pits.
Most residents spent their working lives in colder climates and appreciate Nalcrest as “a beautiful place to live at a very reasonable cost,” says Matty Rose, president of the Nalcrest board of trustees.
Nalcrest offers a reprieve not only from the winter cold, but also barking dogs — a no-pets policy is strictly enforced.
Penney Retirement Community Clay County
A preacher’s son, retail magnate James Cash “J.C.” Penney used his wealth in 1926 to create a community for retired church workers on 200 acres in northeast Florida.
Although Penney lost control of the land in the 1929 stock market crash, his vision for a Christian retirement community lives on in Clay County.
These days, Penney Retirement Community aims for a wider audience of Christian laypeople who have an interest in volunteer work. Some 470 residents annually spend more than 145,000 hours volunteering on campus or at local food banks, schools and other organizations, says development director Kathy Berger.
“We call it purposeful living. People here have a reason to put their feet on the floor in the morning and get up and get busy,” she says.
Residents pay entry fees ranging from$43,500 for a small apartment to $280,000 for a four-bedroom house, plus $700 to $1,600 in monthly dues. Besides 290 independent-living residences, there are 55 assisted-living units, a 20-bed memory care center, and a 40-bed skilled nursing facility.
Berger says the non-profit community is more diverse than you’d think.
“Everybody is Christian, but from 26 denominations,” she says. “That can lead to some interesting discussions.”