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Founded 25 Years Ago : Sun Cities Warm Retirees' Lives

March 23, 1986|HOWARD E. BOICE JR. | Boice is a Phoenix free-lance writer. and

SUN CITY, Ariz. — They come here from every state to live in this most famous of all planned retirement communities, but especially they come from California.

"It's the security, it's the economy, it's the low taxes, it's all the things to do," said William McCreath, a retired Chevron Corp. employee from Clayton, Calif., about 35 miles east of San Francisco.

"It's to get away from the congestion, high real estate prices and high taxes," said retired Lockheed employee Ralph Turner, most recently of Santa Rosa.

"It's to escape the humidity," said David Broode, who moved to Sun City West last October after a year of retirement in San Diego. He's originally from the Midwest.

Easier Adjustment

"I don't know of any place in the world with comparable recreational facilities," Turner said. "There are so many activities available that it would be hard not to get involved.

"If one spouse dies, the other will have an easier adjustment here than anywhere else, even with family, because everyone here has time to help and become involved."

Like most of the 58,000 residents of the Sun Cities--Sun City and adjoining Sun City West--about 15 miles northwest of Phoenix, Turner, McCreath and Broode came here looking for an active way to spend retirement.

Active is the key word here. Developer Del E. Webb, a Phoenix contractor, founded the original Sun City 25 years ago, on the then-untried proposition that retirees would move to these former cotton fields if recreation facilities were built first. He reasoned that retired folk didn't want to wait around for promises to be built.

Recreation Centers

His gamble paid off: 262 homes were sold the first weekend, more than 1,300 the first year. It's been go go go every year since, except for the early 1980s when the real estate market dropped everywhere.

"Building the recreation centers first has been the key," said Fred Kuentz, chairman of Del E. Webb Development Co. and one of the few people still with the company who were there in the beginning. Another plus was construction of 355-bed Walter O. Boswell Memorial Hospital, which attracted more than 200 practicing physicians to the area.

So successful has been the concept, that the Sun Cities now boast of 17 golf courses and 15 major recreational centers, including the new $14-million R.H. Johnson Center in Sun City West and the 7,169-seat Sundome Center for the Performing Arts, the largest single-level theater in the United States.

"More people move here from California than from any other state except Arizona," Kuentz said. "Illinois is third."

Pay Cash for Homes

Ken Plonski, Del Webb's manager of public affairs, says he's been told by many Californians that because of high real estate prices on the West Coast, they were able to sell their California home, use part of the profit to pay cash for a Sun City house, invest the remainder and live comfortably--in fact, affluently--off of their investment income, company pensions and Social Security.

"Sun City is affluent without being stuffy," Turner said.

The average household income is $24,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census, and about 70% of all home sales are cash. Sun Cities' 58,000 residents' net worth is estimated at $5.8 billion, with deposits in local savings institutions surpassing $2 billion.

It's also a clean place. If a scrap of litter should appear, it's likely that one of the 500-plus members of PRIDES (Proud Residents Independently Donating Essential Services), a volunteer group, will pick it up.

Low Crime Rate

Should a stranger drive onto one of the many wide, gently curving streets, it's likely he will find himself followed by one of Sun City's volunteer posse members.

"It's very effective in keeping the crime rate among the lowest in the U.S., Plonski says. "Burglars don't feel at all comfortable with someone watching their activities, especially in a car that looks like a sheriff's car."

No crime and no children, either, except those who are visiting for a short time. Children under 18 by law are banned from living here. The R.H. Johnson Center, however, recognizing that grandparents like to have grandchildren visit from time to time, has a video game room.

Home buyers in the Sun Cities must be at least 50 years old, according to deed restrictions and county zoning codes.

Sun Citizens, as they call themselves, are quick to travel and visit their families--especially in the summer when residents who stay really find out what the Sun in Sun City stands for. Webb has provided a 3,500-space parking lot for recreational-vehicle storage.

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