Reflecting on 15 years of Lake Sumter Landing

The Lake Sumter Landing lighthouse is silhouetted by the setting sun as seen from the eighth fairway of the Riley Grove nine at Palmer Legends Country Club. The structure is one of the popular square’s iconic landmarks.

On a warm summer night 15 years ago, the lighthouse at Lake Sumter Landing illuminated for the first time. Villagers danced around the Pavilion at Lake Sumter Landing Market Square in celebration while listening to the rock ’n’ roll sounds of Derek and the Slammers. It was that same night that Tony Pacelli, 88 at the time, commented on how impressed he was with how far The Villages had come in his 20 years in the community. Pacelli, one of the founding fathers of softball as we now know it in The Villages today, has since passed away, but his predictions for the square’s future have come true. “You can bet people from all over The Villages will come here for entertainment and the shops and eating places that will be here,” Pacelli said on that opening night, according to The Villages Daily Sun’s coverage of the event. “It will be a drawing attraction for all types.” It has been 15 years since the lakefront downtown of Lake Sumter Landing opened to the community.

And today, the area’s lighthouse glows just as brightly as it did in 2004, with no signs of dimming any time soon.

As Bill and Joyce Burns, of the Village of Country Club Hills, sat eating their lunch at Lighthouse Point Bar & Grille on a recent summer day, they said the lighthouse was a highlight of the area for them, and they’ve been returning to the square to enjoy it for more than six years.

“The area instantly drew my attention,” Bill said. “The view and the food are outstanding. It’s just a nice place to come and relax and have a nice meal.”

Businesses at the square

Although some things have changed over the years, many things haven’t.

The Old Mill Playhouse, Ambrosia on the Square, The Purple Pig, Bear Dance Boutique, Hallmark and R.J. Gators are still there, as are about 20 other businesses that opened prior to December 2015.

“There is a great synergy between the retail, restaurant, service and office uses there,” said Scott Renick, director of commercial development for The Villages. “Most of the businesses that have come to Lake Sumter Landing over the years have thrived off of each others’ customer traffic, and the energy around the center continues to be an attractive quality.”

The Villages’ second movie theater, the classically designed Old Mill Playhouse, opened just days after Lake Sumter Landing, and it has stood the test of time.

Jeffrey LeFrancois, assistant manager at the theater, was there when it opened. At the time, he was an usher.

“It was mobbed here when we first opened,” he said. “We had some old movies that had been out for a while, but people were still coming to see them.”

Lefrancois said that it’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years because he enjoys coming to work so much.

“The staff here makes it fun,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like work.”

Lefrancois said the theater’s biggest milestone was when it started using digital projections about eight years ago, a feature that all three Villages movie theaters have now.

“It took us from static fuzziness to something crisp and clear, like looking out the window,” he said.

But even though it’s been 15 years, the theater is still developing and is constantly active.

At the beginning of the year, Lazy Mac’s Taco Shack was installed in the lobby, and many events, like a recent Downton Abbey tea party, are held inside the theater.

With the recent opening of Chop House at Lake Sumter and The Flying Biscuit Cafe, Lake Sumter Landing is more than 99% occupied. Both Spanish Springs Town Square and Brownwood Paddock Square are 97% occupied.

“(My husband) likes Thai Ruby, and we both enjoy walking around down here by the water and the shops,” said Carleen Richardson, of Arlington Ridge in Leesburg. “We bring our grandchildren here too because they enjoy looking out over the water and walking the boardwalk. There’s just a lot to do here. We can grab a cup of coffee at Starbucks or a bite to eat at Panera (Bread) and check out the many shops around the square.”

Entertainment

Business isn’t the only thing booming at Lake Sumter Landing. Entertainment and special events have been a staple at the square for years.

Lake Sumter Landing has hosted numerous political rallies for candidates, including Sen. Mitt Romney, Sen. Paul Ryan, President George W. Bush, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Florida Gov. Rick Scott. It also has been the site of several live television events, including Glenn Beck, Fox & Friends’ 15th Anniversary Show, Sean Hannity and more.

Over the years, the square also has been the site of many large festivals and special events put on by The Villages, including St. Patrick’s Day festivals, Christmas tree lightings and many car shows.

“We have seen a consistent growth in attendance over the years, especially recently,” said Chalsi Goheen, special events manager with The Villages Entertainment. “During this time, we have also continued to expand our events to both keep up with demand and to keep things new and exciting.”

As snowbirds return this year, Lake Sumter Landing will offer monthly events.

There will be Tai Chi on Tuesday; Total Body Workout in November; Ukulele in December; Group Synergy in January; Cardio Drumming in February; Interval Training in March; an Earth Day event in April; Zumba in May and Yoga on the Square in June.

The three squares

Even with all of Lake Sumter Landing’s events and entertainers, those who frequent other areas of The Villages should not feel left out.

Goheen said Spanish Springs Town Square still holds the most events per year, and Brownwood has been increasing the number of events at its location as well.

“We’ve been working hard to bring more balance to that,” Goheen said.

But she said Lake Sumter Landing does typically get the largest crowds due to both its central location and larger physical size.

“The project itself was unique in the commercial real estate sector, as there were very few like it at that time,” Renick said. “The area was modeled similarly to Spanish Springs but larger. And having been constructed all at once was also a differentiator for Lake Sumter Landing.

Renick credits the central location and diverse mix of local and national businesses, most of which have been in place for many years, as contributing factors to the success of the square.

Although each square is set up differently, with its own unique features and strengths, one thing they have in common is the variety of nightly entertainment.

“At this point, I would say that there isn’t one ‘favorite’ square overall,” Goheen said. “Everyone has their personal favorite square, but ultimately we’ve seen all of them get equal favor. One thing that does make Lake Sumter Landing special is the scenery, especially that beautiful view over the lake. It really creates a comfortable, inviting and relaxing atmosphere.”

Senior writer Kristen Fiore contributed to this report. Staff writer Monique Meeks can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5387, or monique.meeks@thevillagesmedia.com.