What Florida's good at
The odd news makes the headlines, but the state excels in important areas.
Retirement Communities / The Villages
Sumter County, home of The Villages, is the nation’s only county where more than half of the residents are 65 or older. For several consecutive years, the U.S. Census Bureau has ranked it the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan statistical area.
In the early 1970s, Harold Schwartz, a Michigan businessman, began developing a mobile home park on pastureland in Central Florida. By the early 1980s, Orange Blossom Gardens consisted of 386 mobile homes, a clubhouse and a few shuffleboard courts.
In 1983, Schwartz’s son, Gary Morse, a former advertising business owner in Chicago, moved to Florida to oversee the development, ultimately transforming it into a master-planned, age-restricted community of singlefamily homes. In 1992, he renamed it The Villages.
Today, more than 118,000 people live in The Villages, one of the largest retirement communities in the world. Covering 40 square miles across three counties, it has more than 640 holes of golf, 70 tennis courts and 182 pickleball courts, 11 softball fields, three town squares, a 1,000-seat performing arts hall and loads of specialty clubs.
Andrew Carle, founding director of the Program in Senior Housing Administration at George Mason University, says The Villages represents a new generation of retirement communities that cater to active seniors. He credits The Villages with recognizing early on that “today’s retirees aren’t looking to retire to a rocking chair on the porch and watch the sun go up and down.”
Other retirement communities, inspired by the success of The Villages, are creating their own amenity-rich environments. Last year, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Holdings joined with Tampa-based Minto Communities to develop an over-55 community called Latitude Margaritaville in Daytona Beach. Plans call for 7,000 homes, a pool with lawn games and tiki huts and a town square with a band shell for live musical performances.
Despite the challenges posed by rapid population growth, Florida’s roads and bridges are widely considered among the best maintained in the nation. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that of 122,659 miles of public roads in Florida, only 11% are in poor condition — a far lower percentage than in California (50%), New York (28%) or Texas (18%). Florida relies heavily on tolls to pay for road construction and maintenance, with more than 730 miles of its roads subject to tolls — the most of any state.
Over the past decade, Florida’s Turnpike, a pioneer in large-scale tolling, has begun eliminating cash toll collection in favor of all-electronic tolls via SunPass. In South Florida, nearly nine of 10 vehicles on the turnpike have SunPass transponders (electronic devices that automatically debit an account when cars go through a toll plaza). Turnpike officials point to benefits of electronic tolling that include reduced traffic congestion and increased safety.
More than 100 years ago, Florida enacted its first law guaranteeing people the right to inspect government records — and the state has remained a national leader in government transparency since. Today, the rights of the public to obtain public records — and to attend public meetings — are enshrined in the state constitution and protected by the threat of criminal penalties for violators. Notice of public meetings must be posted in advance, and minutes must be kept. There are plenty of flaws. The Legislature, for instance, exempts itself from some of the most restrictive provisions. Government officials are permitted to self-select which of their e-mails are public records. And new exemptions are created every year. But there remains a stronger culture of transparency in Florida than just about any other state in the country.
Among the longstanding customer service standouts in Florida are Publix, which has built its brand on customer friendliness, and Florida’s airports, noted for being clean, staffed by helpful employees and easy to navigate. Walt Disney World, in addition to spawning a mammoth tourism industry, has also raised the bar everywhere when it comes to customer service. Disney’s customer service is so legendary that it established a consulting division — the Disney Institute — with clients ranging from Haagen- Dazs and Humana to the University of Tennessee’s athletic department.
Florida’s 40% decline in violent crimes was the largest in the country between 2006 and 2016, resulting in a 10-year low for the state, according to the “50-State Data on Public Safety” report by the Council of State Governments. Among violent crimes, aggravated assaults fell 40%, the largest decrease in that category of any state, but 35 states continue to have lower aggravated assault rates than Florida. The state was one of only five to experience declines of at least 10% in all four categories of violent crimes — homicides, rape, robberies and aggravated assaults — between 2006 and 2016. Florida also had the second-largest decline in robberies between 2006 and 2016.
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