Construction begins on recreation center

Members of The Villages Public Safety Department from left: Dylan Sharpe, firefighter/paramedic; Jim Goodworth, deputy fire chief; Chief Edmund Cain; Robert Ramage, division chief of fire training; Lt. Noah Hartman; Kara Watts, division chief of EMS training; and Ryan Keller, firefighter/paramedic/engineer, participate in the groundbreaking ceremony of First Responders Recreation Center on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

Members of the Amenity Authority Committee happily sank their shovels into the earth and turned over piles of dirt Wednesday morning. With that, the construction of First Responders Recreation Center is officially underway. The AAC members were joined by District staff for a groundbreaking ceremony at the location for the newest recreation amenity near the Village of Chatham. The facility will be designed as a tribute to first responders. The ceremony was another milestone in a long process, said Don Deakin, AAC chairman.

“We’re extremely happy that all of our hard advance work has come together and that we are actually starting construction,” he said.

That process began in 2018 when the AAC purchased the 19-acre property just south of First Baptist Church of The Villages.

“This has been a several-year journey,” said Bruce Brown, director of District Property Management. “When you get to this point and are ready to put shovels in the ground, it’s always exciting.”

The existing building will be renovated and expanded to include a multipurpose room, arts and crafts room with a kiln, game room, card room and kitchen.

Outdoor amenities will include several not currently available north of County Road 466 such as an 18-hole putt-and-play golf course, a resort-style family pool, a fire pit and platform tennis in addition to a lawn bowling/croquet green and pickleball, basketball and sand volleyball/beach tennis courts.

Deakin was pleased that the AAC is able to offer amenities requested by the residents.

“It was particularly rewarding that we had so much input and participation from the residents,” he said. “The AAC said from the beginning that we wanted to provide unique facilities up here that didn’t exist north of 466.”

Resident input was provided during a survey conducted by The Villages Recreation and Parks Department.

“They got to pick all the amenities they wanted and helped design it,” Brown said. “Certainly we’re giving residents what they want and what they asked for.”

Bob and Marcy Solomonson, of the Village of Chatham at Soulliere, have been eagerly monitoring the prep work at the property.

“We’ve been following everything right from the beginning,” Bob said.

“This is one of my walkways, so every day I come past here and check it out,” Marcy said. “I got excited when I saw the big machinery starting to come in here. This is an exciting day for sure.”

Members of The Villages Public Safety Department and Marion County Fire Rescue were on hand for the ceremony.

Joe LaCognata, chaplain with Marion County Fire Rescue, said having a facility dedicated to first responders is an honor.

“In our community locally we enjoy tremendous support from our people, but it’s not like that everywhere,” he said. “For our folks to be supportive in recognizing the commitment that we’ve made to them it’s great encouragement and motivation for us. It helps us remember that people are grateful for the sacrifices we’re making and the challenges we’re facing. Sadly, this wouldn’t happen everywhere and we know that. But it does happen here and we’re grateful that it does.”

John Holze, of the Village Santiago, proudly wore his NYPD hat to the ceremony.

“This is a great thing,” he said. “When you talk about first responders it encompasses so many different people, so many different jobs. It’s so nice to have a dedication like this that includes them all. And it’s going to be a wonderful facility.”

Honoring first responders with the facility is a fitting tribute, said District Manager Richard Baier.

“We owe a large debt of gratitude to our brave first responders who selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to help and serve others,” he said. “This recreational amenity is a wonderful way to honor them. Our first responders perform their duties with integrity, honor and compassion and we should be forever grateful to our first responders who serve or have served across our great nation.”

Baier was also appreciative of the resident support for the project.

The First Responders Recreation Center is expected to open to residents next summer.

“This project has been a multi-year effort with a tremendous amount of community input,” he said. “We look forward to cutting the ribbon in 2022 on what will surely be an amazing recreation amenity for our residents.”


Specialty Editor Keith Pearlman can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5347, or