Revitalization continues around Spanish Springs

Upgrades in Spanish Springs include the debut of The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center, right, and the renovation of Rialto Theatre.

Maybe there really is a fountain of youth to be found at Spanish Springs after all.

Revitalization of entertainment offerings, shopping, dining and other amenities at The Villages’ original town square has been ongoing during its 26-year story, and a popular new living option may be part of its next chapter.

The Lady Lake commission will hear discussion Monday on a request to add a few apartment homes to the second stories of four buildings at Spanish Springs, and a vote is expected later this month. It’s a maintenance-free option that some residents have been asking for, and a move that would “further animate,” the square, said Ryan McCabe, assistant director of operations for The Villages. 

“Spanish Springs is a key part of our community, and we are working to ensure it stays healthy and filled with the services and activities residents enjoy,” McCabe said. “The presence of residents living right there would certainly be a plus for the restaurants and shop owners who do such a great job serving our community. We are committed to keeping Spanish Springs and all our Town Centers active areas that serve as focal points for our residents.”

The proposal comes as nightly entertainment returns to the square tomorrow, The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center reopens later this week and major renovation work at the Rialto Theater nears completion in the coming months.

“I think that people will see what a true gem they have in Spanish Springs,” said Deborah Mills, operations director of The Villages Movie Theaters. “It’s the theater district, because The Sharon is there, and now the Rialto is going to be snazzed up. It’s the place to go for premium entertainment.”

A New Approach To Connecting Residents

Inspired by St. Augustine and its fountain of youth lore, Spanish Springs ignited The Villages’ resident-driven lifestyle designed by the Morse family for four generations.

“We realized most of our residents came from small towns, they liked the atmosphere of being together and gathering together,” recalled Tracy Morse, Vice President of Design for The Villages, on the square’s creation.

“It was a very exciting time for all of us because it was something we had never done before,” she said. “We were meeting all these creative people that let our creative juices start flowing. It was just wonderful. We were all together as a family creating this amazing new thing for Central Florida.”

Mark Morse, President of The Villages added that people in the community “thought we were a little bit crazy“ to undertake the effort, which was completed one building at a time.

“The concept of the square itself came out of the design process,” he said. “Most small Spanish towns had a square, had a church and they would have gatherings in the evenings. We were looking to design a sense of place. So that’s why the square was incorporated into the design of the first town center.”

That design was directed by Toronto-based FORREC, the firm that designed Universal Studios in Orlando and some Legoland theme parks.

They centered the story of the square around Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, who accidentally discovered Florida looking for gold and the fountain of youth. They suggested that the spring percolating through the town square was one that de Leon believed could have led to  that very fountain.

Unlike a theme parks that guests visit for maybe eight hours, a day or so per year, it was envisioned that “residents of The Villages would come back every day, all day, for many years, to shop, socialize and even dance in the town square.”

On May 7, 1994 the Spanish Springs Town Square was dedicated and buildings on the north side of Main Street opened.

The Villages administration office went in on the second floor of The Citus Exchange building in 1995. The PB Smythe building on the south side of Main Street opened a year later in 1996.

The Van Patton House was completed in 1997, as was the Church on the Square, and McCall’s Tavern opened that year.

El Rialto, as it was called, opened for movies in 1998, Along with Katie Belle’s Saloon and the Veterans Memorial Park.

The first support of residential living for Spanish Springs also came in 1998 with the opening of Villas of Spanish Springs.

Today the square is home to more than 50 retail stores and restaurants. It also regularly hosts events such as resident heritage festivals, parades, veterans ceremonies and the monthly classic car cruise-in that has been running for 23 years.

An Evolution Into A Cultural Hub

About a decade ago, Villages residents began asking for a performing arts center, and some even formed an exploration group.

The Villages Developer stepped forward with the plan to convert the Church on the Square and its courtyard into a state-of-the-art venue that would seat up to 1,000 and become a draw for premier acts.

Sharon L. Morse, the wife of Villages founder H. Gary Morse and mother of Mark, Jennifer and Tracy, was the inspiration for the project.

A gifted singer, she was known for her musical ability, love of the arts and talents in interior design.

It was Sharon who took her 13-year-old granddaughter, Whitney, on family trip to London, where Whitney saw her first Broadway-caliber musical.

It was an experience that launched Whitney’s own professional theater career.

On April 30, 2015, The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center opened as the new crown jewel of Spanish Springs - under the direction of Whitney Morse.

“Sharon L. Morse spent a large part of her life brining us to the theatre, and now because of the passion she instilled in all of us, we are bringing the theatre to you,” Whitney messaged to guests at the grand opening.

The church’s ambience had been preserved, including its stain-glass windows in the expansive lobby. The auditorium and stage were built as an addition onto the former church, which served as place for non-denominational services on Sundays and a venue for weddings.

Broadway star Patti LuPone headlines the opening gala at the 32,000-square-foot performing arts center.

 In the five years since, the venue has hosted A long string of sold-out shows by other top performers such as Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson and The Beach Boys.

Steve Bova, of the Village of Hillsborough, attends shows frequently at The Sharon and said it has been a welcome development at the square.

“It’s a first-class facility,” he said. “The seating and the acoustics are absolutely outstanding. To have that kind of entertainment opportunity in our community is just fabulous.”

The venue in Spanish Springs also boosts local businesses, owners say.

“It has really helped the merchants of Spanish Springs because we have more people wandering around the square,” said Candy Coldwell, owner of The Kings Gallery and secretary-treasurer of the Spanish Springs Merchants Association. “It has been a great help, and the shows that they’ve been putting on – well, all of us want to go!”

Five years after The Sharon’s opening, the Spanish Springs revitalization continues with a major renovation at the Rialto Theatre scheduled to debut in the next few months.

The project will add powered reclining seats, stadium-like seating, a new sound system, a new restaurant and bar in the lobby, new floors and new bathrooms.

It’s another response to resident feedback, said Craig Wolf, who has been manager at Rialto Theater for a decade.

“It’s all about the guests, and I think the changes are just going to knock it out of the park for them,” he said. “It’s going to be a beautiful place.”

 In recent years, the Rialto established a reputation for being one of the prime locations nationally for specialty releases catering to the fine arts, cultural programming and independent releases.

Wolf said the theater is about much more than just movies.

“It’ll be a whole experience,” he said. “I think it’ll really become a downtown entertainment spot.”

Another Step In Revitalization

McCabe said that the proposal to offer  apartment-style living at Spanish Springs also comes from resident feedback, noting that about 80% of leases signed at The Lofts at Brownwood have come from Villages homeowners.

Another proposal for apartment homes nearby at the former site of Hacienda Hills Country Club - with amenities such as a sports court, resort-style pool and restaurant - is also moving through the Sumter County Commission this month.

“We’ve always had residents who love the lifestyle of the community and want a maintenance-free living option,” McCabs said. “This allows a Villager to remain in their adopted hometown while staying close to friends and activities they enjoy.”

Dorothy Rodriguez, of the Village of Hemingway, started calling to get her name on a waiting list as soon as she heard about the possibility of apartment homes at Spanish Springs.

The opportunity to live within a town center would be a dream for Rodriguez, who moved 15 years ago from Long Island, New York, first to the Village of Woodbury and then to her current home in Hemingway.

She likes the idea of being closed enough to walk to entertainment, shopping and restaurants.

“It all appeals to me,” she said.

Coldwell said that businesses at the square would welcome the move.

“We can see it could benefit the retailers and restaurants,” she said. “People living in the apartments will use the restaurants daily, we’re sure they will use the merchants as well.”

Residents transitioning to apartment-style living in The Villages participate in the amenity fees and privileges they previously enjoyed throughout the community.

McCabe added that apartment-style living would be introduced with the same thoughtful design as other improvements made in the 26 years since the square was created.

“It will be a great fit for that location, very Villages-esque in its look and feel, while creating an additional way for retirees to enjoy America’s Friendliest Hometown,” he said.

It’s a commitment to preserving the vitality of  the northern end of the community while expansion continues in the south, McCabe said.

“The creation of The Sharon Morse Performing Arts Center was an important step,” he said. “The renovated Rialto Theater will be another. In recent years, we’ve also seen beautiful new homes being built in the Historic District of The Villages. Now we’re excited about a future Spanish Springs being renewed and continuing to be a vital, fun town center for our residents to enjoy.”

Speciality Editor Keith Pearlman can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5347, or keith.pearlman@thevillagesmedia.com.