The Villages Building Trend Bucks the State

Joe Elliott, with wife, Barbara, know intimately the dynamics of The Villages expansion south of SR 44, as Village of Fenney residents and his role as a member of the Wildwood City Commission.

Once again, The Villages is leading the way in the state’s return to prosperity.

While most of Florida is back to a state of economic normalcy, one sector remains soft since the collapse of the national real estate market in the mid-2000s — construction, Amy Baker, the Florida Legislature’s chief economist recently told members of the House Appropriations Committee.

But The Villages is defying that state trend; just as it did when Florida home values tanked during the collapse, state Rep. Don Hahnfeldt, R-The Villages, said.

“Construction may be a drag on the economy, relative to the rest of this great recovery that Florida is experiencing, but the robust building and construction growth in my legislative district leads not just Florida, but also probably the nation,” said Hahnfeldt, of the Village of Bridgeport at Lake Miona.

Key economic indicators bolster the assertion of the District 33 representative, whose district includes all of The Villages metropolitan statistical area.

• While it didn’t experience the harsh downturn witnessed elsewhere in Florida, The Villages MSA is the state’s only metro market where home values, even for the least expensive home, recovered from the national real estate collapse, CoreLogic, the nation’s pre-eminent real estate analytics firm, concluded in a recent national analysis. All other metro markets in Florida remain undervalued.

• Building remains strong in The Villages portion of Sumter County, too. The number of residential building permits issued for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30 increased year-over-year by 44 percent to 1,527. The value of those permits increased by about 33 percent to $428 million.

• Home sales continue an upward surge. The year-over-year value of documentary tax stamps assessed on Sumter home deeds, for instance, increased just in August by 28 percent to nearly $1.1 million, according to the Florida Department of Revenue.

The Villages and Sumter entered a new era of growth some time ago, Sumter Administrator Bradley Arnold said.

“Sumter County is leading the state in regards to the construction growth,” he said. “Building permits have ticked up. We see the increase in construction activity, not just construction activity in The Villages, but also both residential and commercial construction outside The Villages. I would venture to say, although the state talks about a drag in construction, Sumter County has led the state in the past in construction activity and, because of construction, we’re leading again.”

Expect a continuation of that trend, said Sean Snaith, Ph.D., a nationally quoted professor of economics at the University of Central Florida.

One national trend fuels that expectation — retiring baby boomers, he said. By 2030, according to federal data, baby boomers ages 66 to 84 will number about 61 million people.

“Nothing would suggest that the trend we’ve been observing is likely to change,” Snaith said. “These are fundamental drivers, not cyclical. And it’s all tied the demographics and the retirement of baby boomers. That’s not going to change.”

The benefit of the baby boomers’ desire for the quality lifestyle available in The Villages extends far beyond the community’s boundaries, said Doug Gilpin, chairman of the Sumter County Commission.

Proof of that benefit appeared in September’s unemployment report, he said.

The county’s year-over-year jobless rate decreased by 1.3 percent to 4.7 percent, while employment grew by 6.2 percent to 29,147 workers, according to the latest state jobs report.

“Construction couldn’t be more robust anywhere else in Florida than Sumter County,” Gilpin said. “The real story is it’s just gone on fire around here. We continue to grow and prosper.”

Give credit to The Villages expansion south of State Road 44 for the lion’s share of this growth, he added.

“Of course, it’s The Villages construction and the ancillary construction that goes along with that,” Gilpin said. “With rooftops comes more work. It’s a wonderful cycle that we’ve been in for a long period of time. And the county has made sure our building permit process is very simple, very easy, very business friendly, and that really helps.”

The presentation Baker recently gave during the Appropriations Committee meeting elicited a chuckle from Wildwood City Commissioner Joe Elliott, of the Village of Fenney.

“Construction is still kind of lagging behind in our economic forecast,” Baker, coordinator of the legislative Office of Economic and Demographic Research, told the committee. “We don’t have those components returning to normal until 2020-2021. But, that weakness that’s remaining in construction, at least through the summer, is being more than offset by the strength in tourism. Tourism is so strong now that it’s an outsized piece of what we would be looking at normally in our economy. So, we’re projecting that tourists are going to grow by about 4.5 percent per year all the way through our forecast.”

In light of that forecast, Elliott thinks Baker and her staff should visit The Villages to witness its expansion in and around the villages of Fenney and Southern Oaks within the city of Wildwood.

“Her forecast tells me I need to call her and invite her to take a look at what we’re doing,” he said. “The Villages is the engine that’s driving the economic growth. For The Villages, they’ve got a tremendously successful business model, and they’re making lifestyles available to thousands and thousands of people.”

David Corder is a senior writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or david.corder@thevillagesmedia.com.