Sun City Hilton Head:Not Your Grandma’s Retirement Home
Author: Linda S. Hopkins
Sun City’s official ground-breaking ceremony in may 1994
If the term “senior living” conjures up visions of blue-haired ladies shouting “Bingo” or decrepit old men playing shuffleboard, prepare to be awakened. One visit to Sun City Hilton Head, and you may be counting the days until your fifty-fifth birthday… or scrambling for a fake ID.
Over the past 20 years, approximately 14,000 residents have discovered the age-restricted (55-plus) active adult community that redefines retirement living. With three golf courses, six swimming pools, two restaurants, three spas, four clubhouses, tennis, pickleball, Bocce and croquet courts, a softball field, dog park, a 548-seat performing arts center, walking trails, wood workers shop and much more, you would be hard pressed to find any thumb twiddlers.
In addition to its vast amenities, Sun City Hilton Head has 73 chartered clubs and approximately 50 resident community groups to keep seniors engaged physically, mentally and socially.
“Somebody has to try very hard to be bored in Sun City,” said Hallie Martin-Hanlin, communication director.
In the beginning
Long before Sun City Hilton Head was a glint in Del Webb’s eye, the land now occupied by the massive retirement community was farmland, once carpeted in cotton and blue indigo, staple crops of the South in the early 1940s. In 1943, Argent Cattle and Lumber Company bought the land, using it for hardwood tree harvesting and cattle grazing, until Union Camp came along in 1958, converting much of it into a pine tree farm for paper manufacturing.
When Del Webb entered the picture in 1993 with a proposal for an active adult retirement community to mimic its Arizona development and other West Coast properties, you might have thought the world was coming to an end. Blufftonians were abuzz about the state of their “state of mind,” and Hilton Head Islanders were aghast that their name might be hijacked. But the dust settled, and later that year, Beaufort County Council approved the rezoning request, accepting a 20-year development plan for Del Webb’s first East Coast property. South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) followed suit, announcing a $17 million contract to build the U.S. 278 and I-95 connector, and Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority approved construction of an $11 million project to bring water to the Okatie area. In April of 1994, the first clearing of forest land began. The official groundbreaking ceremony took place on May 17.
In spite of construction delays due to back-to-back years of 100-year record rainfalls in 1994 and 1995, the first phase was completed by March of 1995 for a grand opening in June. At that time, 120 homes had already been sold, and in August, the first residents moved in.
Eighty-year-old Ann Lau, a retired school teacher from Philadelphia, was one of them and is still there today.“It was like camping,” she said. “There were no facilities. When it came time to settle, they couldn’t even suggest where we could go for a sandwich. It was a forest then.” And that was part of the appeal for Lau. “When you get in on the ground floor of anything, boy is it fun!” she said.
“But those planners knew what they were doing,” Lau added. “When we got here, there was an infrastructure.
You didn’t worry about a water supply or an airport or the highway system. They [Del Webb] studied three locations east of the Mississippi, and we were the winner. They weren’t going to put us in an area that wasn’t capable of nourishing us and sustaining us.”
Lau and her husband Jim were still working and maintained their home in Philadelphia for a time. But they embraced their retirement plans and “jumped in with both feet,” she said. “And that was true of everybody.
Every night, they had something going on publicly that you could gather for. It was usually something like…oh…podiatrist service. And we would go, not to hear about the podiatrist, but to see one another. It was easy to meet people, and everybody was into organizing. It was very exciting to be in on the beginning.”
In spite of its staggering growth, with every facility imaginable now within an easy walk or drive, the sense of adventure and belonging hasn’t changed. “The day you move in, you’re a part of it,” Lau said. “You do not have to work your way in. You could join any club, the day you walk in; as soon as the moving truck pulls off, you’re a full member. You’re an instant friend.”
Annette Lund, another of the first 100 residents—a group who came to be known as the Barrel Landing Club—is one of 43 original members who are still there. She and her late husband bought on the fourth day that the property was offered for sale, making the down payment with a credit card. While no houses were finished yet and there was nothing to see, they were sold on the Del Webb reputation and the promise of what was to come. “We were looking for a place to be active,” Lund said. She has not been disappointed.
Sun City today
Sun City Hilton Head has continued to grow and thrive. In 2002, Del Webb merged with the Pulte Group, which is the present developer responsible for building the amenities and homes, Martin-Hanlin explained.
The community sprawls over 5,725 acres (nine square miles) in Beaufort and Jasper Counties and includes 81 miles of roads and 1,500 acres of open land and wetlands. There are currently 7, 600 homes with 8,640 total homes projected at build out.
A popular way to get around is by golf cart. “Everything in the community is so close that you can use your golf cart to go to a friend’s house or to the fitness center so you don’t have to use your car,” Martin-Hanlin said. “It’s great for parking, because you can fit two golf carts in one parking spot!”
The two restaurants on site are run by Jamison’s Char House, based in Chicago. Those restaurants as well as all of the golf courses are open to the public. According to Martin-Hanlin, the newest golf course, Argent Lakes, open since 2012, is an executive course, meaning it’s a little bit shorter; it is the only one of its kind in the area, providing an opportunity to play the game faster. “It’s nice for people who still work or have limited time and want to get in a quick game of golf,” she said.
While the community has a board of directors, the day-to-day services are managed by First Service Residential, an international property management company. They employ approximately 200 people at Sun City Hilton Head, not counting outside contractors such as landscaping, security and many other services, Martin-Hanlin said.
In March 1995, Del Webb was named to South Carolina’s list of Top 100 Job Creators of 1994. And in June of ’95, then Governor David Beasley predicted that Sun City Hilton Head would create 10,000 new jobs, and its residents would contribute $1 billion to the local economy every three years.
While it is difficult to measure the exact impact Sun City has had over the past 20 years, the surrounding area has clearly benefited from the influx of new business as well as the bright, talented people who have chosen to make Sun City Hilton Head their home. According to Martin-Hanlin, the Community Association depends on volunteers to do a whole array of things such as heading up clubs and organizations, serving on committees and sharing their knowledge and gifts within the community.
“You can’t believe the background of some of these people who live here, but nobody comes in talking about it,” Lund added. “They just come here to retire and have a good time.”
These same people are also lending their talents to the area at large, volunteering in nearby churches, schools and non-profit organizations. “It’s just the demographic,” Martin-Hanlin said. “There are some pretty cool people who live here, and they want to give back to the community where they live.”
“From the beginning, there was a tremendous impetus to volunteer,” Lau said. “Almost all the early buyers were early in their retirement, coming straight from work to here.”
Lau served as Guardian ad Litem in the court system for abused children for eight years, and Jim worked with continuing education at USCB, serving as the Beaufort County president of what is now OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute). “And we were not atypical,” Lau said. “People got so excited hammering nails for Habitat [for Humanity]. It was a way to find out where we were. Nobody was coming and sitting inside of their house.”
For Lau, the best part of Sun City living (besides an abundance of clear, sunny days) is the emphasis on activity. “All the facilities are designed for being active. In 20 years, you have health issues that come up and this and that, but it’s that active lifestyle that really does carry you through,” she said. You think about it, to be 20 years and at this point in your life, to be so happy and excited…it’s fantastic.”
According to Lund, rumor has it that approximately a dozen residents are 100 years of age and over. “It’s because of the active lifestyle,” she said. “We’re not sitting around rocking like the old grannies used to do.”
The variety and abundance of activities, the beauty of the landscape and the high level of resident involvement make Sun City Hilton Head a world class senior living experience. Not everyone is retired, but the majority are, Martin-Hanlin said. “Most people walk around here with a big smile on their face. They’ve worked really hard to retire, and this is a great place to spend their golden years.”
Learn more about Sun City Hilton Head at delwebb.com/communities/sc/bluffton/sun-city-hilton-head, or call (877) 785-8319 to arrange a tour.