Sun City AZ, with its numerous amenities, events and volunteer spirit, did not happen overnight. But the Sun City idea – a master-planned community built specifically for active adults – turned the way we had traditionally thought about retirement upside down. Experts had long assessed that being around younger people made older folks feel youthful, and others wondered who in their right mind would uproot themselves and move to the Arizona desert?
As is often the way, expert opinion proved misguided. When The Del Webb Development Company (DEVCO) opened the six model homes January 1, 1960, thousands of cars lined Grand Avenue. Long lines snaked around the model homes. Many visitors purchased homes within the first hour. By the end of the first weekend, more than 100,000 visitors had toured the six model homes, and DEVCO officials had sold 237 homes representing about $2.5 million in sales.
Sun City AZ was an immediate and overwhelming success! The community grew quickly. By the end of the first month, the company had sold all 400 of the homes scheduled to be built in the first year. A second phase consisting of 675 homes was quickly put together. The company had planned to sell 1,700 homes in its first three years of marketing Sun City. By the end of 1960, a total of 2,000 homes had been purchased.
The community didn’t get its name until about a month prior to its January 1, 1960, grand opening. The new project was called the “Marinette Retirement Community” until a new name could be found. A nationwide contest was held to name the community and, as legend has it, Del Webb himself selected the winning name after seeing it among the thousands of entries.
Sun City’s initial success earned national attention. The community was highlighted in newspaper and magazine articles throughout the country, featured on the national news, and profiled on TV shows. Del Webb was even featured on a 1962 cover of Time magazine. The positive publicity showered on the community certainly attributed to its continual popularity, but word of mouth played a key role in Sun City’s success. Those who purchased homes after 1960 were often friends of those already living in Sun City AZ. Friends told their friends who in turn told their friends about this new and exciting lifestyle.
Many of the remaining pioneers, in fact, fondly recall how close-knit the community was back in the early 1960s. Friendship, socializing, recreation, and fun were—and continue to be—the main staples of living in Sun City. Various social and arts-related clubs began to organize. Neighbors and friends gathered at the recreation center to celebrate special occasions and holidays.
Early pioneers recall the first Easter Sunrise Service (a tradition that remains to this day), Chow Night at the recreation center, weekly “songfests,” newcomer coffees, and a minstrel show comprised of residents. A theater for residents to entertain each other—and to be entertained—began with the construction of the community’s second recreation center, Town Hall Recreation Center (known today as Fairway Recreation Center). The new facility boasted an outdoor Greek theater (later replaced by the Sun Bowl) that hosted such big-name stars as Lawrence Welk, Rich Little, Rosemary Clooney, Guy Lombardo, and Bob Hope.
Though some scoffed at the idea of an active adult retirement community, Del Webb was confident his new community would be successful. Unlike other retirement communities that promised amenities that never came, Webb built them before the homes. As Sun City AZ grew, DEVCO added recreation centers, golf courses and shopping facilities.
By 1968, the company had constructed three recreation centers in Sun City: Oakmont, Fairway, and the new Mountain View Recreation Center. The three recreation centers were separate entities controlled by three separate boards. The original Sun City recreation centers were assigned to specific units or neighborhoods. At one point, residents living in one Sun City neighborhood were restricted to using one specific recreation center and prohibited from using another center. All that changed in 1968 when the community voted to bring all three existing Sun City recreational centers under one non-profit organization, called the Sun City Community Association. That organization would later become the Recreation Centers of Sun City, Inc. The unification also brought about another novel concept that would eventually be adopted by every other builder of master-planned communities: an assessment on all residents to help pay for the recreational amenities.
By the late 1960s DEVCO began building homes north of Grand Avenue. Lakeview Recreation Center opened in 1970 and within three years the company had begun work on Sundial and Bell Recreation Centers. A final facility, Marinette Recreation Center, opened in 1979. RCSC takes pride in the upkeep and maintenance of Sun City recreational facilites. Renovations to the Marinette Center are scheduled to begin in the Summer of 2014 that will include a larger fitness center and additional pickleball courts along with other improvements. Previously, RCSC renovated Bell Recreation Center in 2006 and completely rebuilt Fairway Recreation Center in 2011, which originally opened in the 1960s, which has similar state-of-the-art fitness amenities including a walking pool but also houses an indoor walking track.
In addition to numerous recreation activities and amenities, Webb wanted Sun City AZ to be a self-contained community where residents could meet all their needs without leaving. During the community development, Webb set aside parcels of land for shopping centers and businesses around the community. As the population grew, so did the need for a variety of services, such as shopping, medical, dining, and long-term care. The community’s first church was the United Church of Sun City. Its first retirement home was Sun Valley Lodge. Its first hotel was the Hi-way House, which also served as a restaurant and an apartment for those waiting for their homes to be built (not to mention the Sun City headquarters for Del Webb).
The nearest hospital was in Glendale, which was a bit too far for a community consisting entirely of senior citizens. A committee to examine the idea of building a Sun City hospital was established in 1966. A community fund drive capped off by a $1.2 million donation from the James G. Boswell Foundation (named after the man who once owned the land where Sun City now exists) allowed for the creation of Boswell Hospital. Ground was broken in 1969 and the facility’s first two towers opened in 1970. As Sun City and the West Valley have grown, Boswell has added services and facilities to better serve the region’s needs. In 2008, Boswell Hospital finished an extensive multi-million dollar expansion to improve medical and health-care services to Sun City and the surrounding area. Today, Banner Boswell Hospital ranked among the Top 100 Heart Hospitals in the country.
City of Volunteers
All these years later, Sun City AZ is still best known for its volunteer spirit. The community remains unincorporated and has always depended on its own residents for many required services. Most of the needed health care facilities in the community were built with funds donated by residents. Sun Valley Lodge, the community’s first retirement home, was and still is primarily funded by resident donations.
Residents elect the boards of directors to oversee the community’s leadership organizations—the Recreation Centers of Sun City, Inc. and the Sun City Homeowners Association. As other needs for services arose over the years, Sun City residents have been quick to organize and find solutions. The Sun City PRIDES keep the streets clean and tidy. The Sheriff’s Posse of Sun City helps the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office patrol the community’s streets and plays a major role in maintaining low crime rates.
Boswell Banner Hospital and its parent, Sun Health, maintain one of largest volunteer forces in the nation to help with day-to-day operations, saving the health care institution millions of dollars each year.
Sun City’s Third Generation
As the community celebrates its 50th birthday, Sun City AZ, with its reputation and charm, remains a desirable place to live for active adults and empty-nesters. In recent years, Sun City has begun welcoming its third generation of residents seeking an active lifestyle in their later years. The Baby Boomer generation, who began reaching retirement age this decade, is set to redefine the traditional retirement years. The incredible economic development and growth of the Phoenix metropolitan area has created jobs and opportunities that draw still-working Baby Boomers to the area. The Sun City AZ lifestyle allows them a place to play while they continue to work.
Sun and fun may have been the initial attraction to Sun City AZ many years ago, but the strength of Sun City’s residents and their enduring ability to take care of one another may be the key to the community’s continued success—and the primary difference between it and all those since that have tried to imitate Del Webb’s vision.