Sun City Undercover

The Spinning of Del's Webb

ASK ME -- I'm a resident!" So say the large-print buttons adorning the lapels of Sun City Georgetown's corps of graying greeters, known efficiently as the "Ask Me's" -- sorta like at Wal-Mart, except these folks are clearly more ambulatory and sentient. Organized, scheduled, and compensated, they fan out to battle stations throughout the public reaches of this latest Del Webb site, ready to pass out fresh-baked cookies, chat up visitors from throughout this mighty land -- and confirm all your preconceived notions of Sun City, however amazing or abhorrent you may find America's largest chain of "active adult communities."

The Ask Me's are exceptionally nice people, so nice that they'd likely be embarrassed and flustered and reticent if I came at them in full journalist drag with a tape recorder. So I went incognito, scoping out Sun City Georgetown for my aging in-laws. Now, I do actually have aging in-laws who are contemplating moving to Austin, though my mother in-law has her own preconceived notions of Sun City -- "Io piu tosto me cacciasse l'occhio ma no abbitase la!" ("I'd rather poke my eye out than live there!")

But the Ask Me's are such nice people, and so sold on Del Webb, that I didn't share Mama's sentiments with them, in either English or Italian. In retrospect, my subterfuge was probably unwarranted -- Sam Donaldson and Mike Wallace could descend on Sun City Georgetown like the Valkyries, and the Ask Me's would calmly tout the benefits of the patented-and-trademarked Del Webb lifestyle, reserved for "mature adults 55 and better." (Though I did, by my ruse, avoid being shunted off to Sun City's retained local public-relations consultants, who, to put it mildly, do not care for the Chronicle.)

To make sense of what's going on here, on 5,300 acres of oak stands and cedar brakes northwest of old Georgetown, ya gotta understand that Del Webb is no ordinary builder/developer, any more than Wal-Mart is an average chain of five-and-dimes, or Walt Disney World a typical roadside attraction. Central Texas has plenty of master-planned subdivisions, with golf courses and water features and streets named for dead governors, and except for its giantism -- 9,300 homes in the master plan -- Sun City Georgetown doesn't seem all that different from Lakeway or Barton Creek, or even Berry Creek up the road in Williamson County.

Looking through the lens of the local real-estate market, Sun City doesn't seem all that impressive, and it ain't no bargain. The lowest-end home -- "The Lavaca" -- lists for $108,000, for a two-bedroom, 1,121-square-foot bungalow on a 55 x 110 lot. That's about what you'd pay for the same-sized house in Central Austin, let alone a suburban subdivision, though cottages like this are pretty rare in the 'burbs. The high end, "The Rio Grande," approaches 3,000 square feet, though it still only has two bedrooms, and sits on a 100 x 110 lot, about a quarter-acre. It lists for nearly $240,000 -- for the same price, you can build a bigger house on a full acre of land in the Fountainwood subdivision, just across Williams Drive from Sun City Georgetown. In both of these cases, the lots in question are bare, unfenced, and surrounded at close quarters on three sides by other homes. A "premium" homesite -- i.e., one with trees, a slope, or unusual depth -- costs significantly extra.

You do, of course, get access to the four planned golf courses, rec center, crafts center, and other "village" amenities (not that you can't find such things in Georgetown already, celebrated Main Street Community that it is), but you pay for them as well, with your mandatory $54-per-month-per-household membership in the community association, titular owner of the Sun City common areas, and with on-the-spot user fees. You even pay extra to store your golf cart or RV, since keeping them at your house is frowned upon. (Camper parking is actually forbidden by deed restriction.)

But the Ask Me's, and the 400 or so current residents, and the 1,000 or so more who have already bought in, and the scores of prospects circulating through the Sales Pavillion and Model Park, are not comparing Sun City Georgetown to the subdivisions that pepper Central Texas. More likely, they're comparing it to other Sun Cities, of which there are eight scattered throughout the Sun Belt, and have long ago decided to cast their late-in-life lot with the Del Webb legacy. What's being sold -- at the rate of three a day in Sun City Georgetown -- are not homes, or even pieces of a community. The Del Webb Corporation is in the image business.

Delbert Eugene Webb himself has been dead for 22 years, but his legacy lives on. Sort of. The development of the first Sun City was largely a footnote to a fairly impressive career in large-scale building and hobnobbing. It's doubtful that most of y'all know, or remember, that Del Webb owned the New York Yankees throughout the DiMaggio/Berra and Mantle/Maris eras, built the current Madison Square Garden, and along with Howard Hughes was most directly responsible for the transformation of Las Vegas from mobster snakepit to American cultural crossroads. Since his death, his company has become one of America's largest homebuilders -- and by far the largest builder/developer in the Southwest -- and is responsible for several ZIP codes worth of Southern California suburbia.

All of that is marginal, at this point, to the Sun Cities, which, in case you just returned from Mars, are wildly successful communities specifically designed for old people, with beaucoup resort-style amenities and lots of free-flowing camaraderie. They are like beached cruise ships with larger bedrooms and golf courses -- and, of course, extensive deed restrictions (don't you dare hang your laundry out to dry in full view of the street). When Webb passed away, there were only two Sun Cities, both in Arizona; the latter-day Sun City empire now stretches beyond the Grand Canyon State to Las Vegas, Palm Springs, the Sierra Nevada foothills northeast of Sacramento, Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, and now the Hill Country. Another massive development, Sun City Grand -- expected to be the size of Round Rock -- is sprouting outside Phoenix, near the inappropriately named town of Surprise.

So, truth be told, Del Webb the man had little to do with what the Sun Cities have become today. Yet his personal legacy is carefully detailed by fairly tasteful, but omnipresent, hagiography flowing through the capacious Sun City PR pipeline. After reading the marketing copy and canned advertorials in the Statesman, picking up your glossy brochure in the lobby of the Sales Pavilion, and contemplating the large wall display therein, if you still haven't gotten the message, you can stand in the master bath of one of the 13 model homes at Sun City Georgetown, press a button, and through a speaker in the wall hear a recorded testimonial to the virtues of the late Mr. Webb. None of this post-mortem spin credits Del Webb with a great vision that changed the way Americans aged, or even suggests that Sun-City-as-concept was his idea -- it merely reiterates that Webb was a stand-up guy, hooked on baseball, who over a long career built a lot of shit and hung with the likes of Barry Goldwater, and in the process became a legend. The Forrest Gump of modern American industry.

So why bother? The company's been public for years, none of Del Webb's kin hold visible positions of power, and even the most weathered prospects wandering the Sun City Georgetown model park have little memory of Del Webb's time spent here in meatspace. From beyond the grave, though, Del Webb has become a character trademark like Snap, Crackle & Pop, an element of a wraparound marketing scheme that should be the envy of all businesspersons and professional communicators. His personal myth lends resonance to all that defines Sun City, and by extension to the folks who live there -- pluck without daring, enterprise without risk, variety without diversity, community without kinship, and luxury without grandeur. The rent-a-cop cars at Sun City Georgetown have the words "Safety and Security" emblazoned in larger-than-necessary letters. You're in good hands with Del Webb.

And my, what fun you'll have, in the same way that eating at Luby's is fun. You have lots of choices without ever encountering anything truly unexpected; someone else takes care of the hard work, and no one cares how much you waste. What does it portend that the ultimate dream of millions of aging Americans is to have a second childhood? "Friends and fun" is the Sun City mantra -- in the myriad scenes captured in the brochures and photo displays, everyone is smiling, and no one is alone.

In the middle of the drought of the century, in a part of Central Texas that's water-poor in the best of circumstances, the artificial creeks and fountains at Sun City Georgetown burble on. The company offers 13 model homes from which to choose, far more than what you'll see from the average builder, yet what strikes you as you transit through them is how little they differ from one another. Aside from the smallest homes, explicitly marketed as second homes and as affordable options for the very old and widowed, each house has the living/dining combination, the artfully appointed little den, the wide-open kitchen with breakfast nook and sectional sofa, the huge master bedroom with huge master bath and huge walk-in closet, the little second bedroom, etc., and the utility room with adjoining craft area where the missus can wield the hot-glue gun and the mister can organize his tackle box.

The regularity obscures the fact that the houses more than double in size as you progress, because you don't get more different spaces, just more of the same space. When you cruise the real live homes on their winding streets and cul-de-sacs, they are exceedingly hard to tell apart, except by their exteriors -- stucco, brick or cultured stone, your choice, all beige. The entire Design Center in the Sales Pavilion, comprising samples of all the different materials and fixtures you can use to "personalize" your Sun City home, is about the size of one of these master bedrooms; your local Home Depot uses the same amount of floor space simply to display bathroom tile.

This makes it all the more disconcerting to hear one prospect, who currently both lives and sells homes in Sun City Tuscon, tell one of the Ask Me's with conviction how different Sun City Georgetown is from his community, how unusual it is to see such variety in a Sun City. It was hard to tell if this was pleasing to him, but Del Webb is banking on it being pleasing to Texans, who have historically paid scant heed to the siren song of the Sun Cities. The pocket-sized lots here are actually bigger than the Del Webb norm, and a choice of facades is unheard of. Sun City Georgetown is the only community in the chain that hasn't been completely terraformed; fairly large stands of oaks and expanses of limestone rubble remain, though the place still must have sucked up the complete local supply of sod and warm-weather groundcovers.

The Texanization seems to be working, at least based on the anecdotal evidence of the Ask Me's; most of those whom I encountered came from elsewhere in the Lone Star State. Aside from some traits we can concede as givens from the outset -- they appear to be all white and Anglo, none has a visible disability, and all are, well, extremely nice -- there is a fair measure of variety to their lot. Some are younger, newly retired or not-yet-retired couples who moved in as soon as the kids were out of the house; others are older, mostly female, recently widowed, and living in the smaller homes that come with community association maintenance agreements for $100 per month atop the mortgage. Some have parents still living, though not in Sun City; some have family in the area, some have none. The age distribution seems to mirror that throughout the Sun City chain, where the average age is 62, but the real population clusters are above and below that median mark.

If the Ask Me's ever thought of living anywhere but a Sun City, or of living in any Sun City other than Georgetown once that became an option, it is not conveyed in their conversations. The typical pattern is that Mr. and Mrs. Ask Me decided long ago that they wanted to retire to a Del Webb community, visited one of the older ones and were confirmed in this notion, and jumped on Georgetown as soon as lots went up for sale last summer. (Indeed, the company itself assumes that its current rapid sales rate is due to pent-up demand and will soon slow down to more reasonable levels; full buildout to 9,300 homes isn't expected for 15 years.) They like their houses, and the fact that they're all the same automatically gives them something to share with their neighbors. ("Are you in the Angelina or the Sabine on Whispering Wind as it enters Neighborhood 3? Did you get the bay window?")

They love Georgetown, its charm, its friendliness, and its antique stores, which were already vultured by Del Webb simply to furnish the model homes with suggestive lifestyling props (every closet in the models is stocked with vintage suitcases, hatboxes, fishing waders, et al.) Georgetown, of course, loves them back, since the local economic impact of Sun City is already being measured in the billions of dollars. The governor of South Carolina called Sun City Hilton Head's residents "tourists that never leave." Even the possible drawbacks of Sun City's eventual domination of Georgetown -- such as reduced enthusiasm for public expenditure and direct competition between Sun City-based and town-based enterprises -- seem small prices to pay for a huge expansion of the tax base and a meager impact on budget outflow.

All this information came flowing freely in the course of conversation, so all that was really left to ask the Ask Me's was "So, what happens now?"

"I'm really happy that I moved in now," one said, acknowledging that, at present, with none of the amenities finished and houses going up around the clock, the place more resembles Bergstrom Airport than a Hill Country paradise. "Because now I'll have the chance to make some good friends from the beginning. Everyone is so friendly here, and helpful to each other. And that's good, because I'm all alone. He's gone now." It was unusual to hear any of the Ask Me's refer to "my (late) husband" -- always just "he."

"And my other family down here" -- she was from Dallas, I believe -- "was my son, and he passed away with cancer a few years ago, right as we moved down here. Here at Sun City, I won't be alone, but I'm not living in a home or a condo, either. I'm still on my own, have my own place, and I like it. It's all I need." Even without the golf courses, the pottery wheels, the square dance clubs and the vacation getaways, Sun City Georgetown has already delivered on the most important promise it makes. You are not alone.

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