By Dennis Rodkin

About 40 miles beyond O’Hare on the Northwest Tollway you get the picture that old people mean business. Looming over the side of the highway is a billboard showing an old man and two old women doing leg lifts. And with their own legs, not firm young bodies pasted on below their older, lined faces. They’re way larger than life, thanks to the exaggerated dimensions of the billboard, so it’s easy to notice the gooseflesh.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But what’s striking about the billboard is that it’s not a joke with old people as the butt, not a smirking image of weirdly buff oldsters or a cheap shot about feeble minds and shriveled up bodies. These people are allowed to be old and not apologize for it. They populate a modern version of a sign that builder Del Webb posted at the entrance to his first Sun City, northwest of Phoenix, Arizona, in 1960. It trumpeted that the subdivision was all about “An Active New Way of Life.” Among the smallish, single-story houses Webb tucked amenities of a new kind of retirement: swimming pools, recreation centers, and golf courses. You couldn’t help but lead an active life, with all these add-ons waiting outside your door (and paid for by your monthly association fees).

This month construction begins on Sun City Huntley, an 1,850-acre subdivision for people 55 or older. The first residents will move in by next spring, and developers the Del Webb Corporation hope to bring in about 9,000 people in the next 15 years. That’s almost three times Huntley’s present population of 3,200, which means that the town will be not only growing fast but growing old. Eventually more than two-thirds of the townspeople could be seniors, living together in a big, lavish subdivision on the southern edge of town. That’s a formidable bloc of voters, shoppers, and drivers, and its impact on Huntley will be immense.

For decades Huntley has been a smaller, dustier counterpart to Harvard and Woodstock, country towns dripping with charm and picturesque amenities. But in the past few years Huntley’s been bulking up as if on steroids. In 1994 the Huntley Factory Shops opened on 50 acres of land fronting the tollway; a factory-outlet mall stuffed with alleged bargains, it was the town’s first big hit and according to a front-page story in the Chicago Tribune signaled that the little town in south McHenry County was the new outer edge of the metropolitan area. Last fall a mammoth junior/senior high school opened west of town, serving the older half of a student body that’s doubled in the past four years. Subdivisions have mushroomed in neighboring Algonquin and Lake in the Hills–parts of which use the Huntley school system–and in Huntley itself, a housing developer is building 750 new homes just north of the business district. Two new factories, making Weber Grills and industrial fasteners, have sprouted north of the outlet mall, and nearby a complex of car dealerships opens this summer.

But all of these projects will be dwarfed by Sun City, where ground is being broken for model homes and an 87,000-square-foot recreation center. The subdivision will occupy a parcel just over the county line in northern Kane County, land that Huntley annexed in 1992. According to David Schreiner, a vice president at Del Webb, homes will be priced from under $150,000 to about $300,000. Del Webb pioneered the notion of sunbird retirement towns; since 1960 it’s built 11 such subdivisions in warm locales like Phoenix, Arizona; Palm Desert, California; and Hilton Head, South Carolina. The various Sun Cities now house about 90,000 senior citizens in surroundings tailor-made for a modern version of retirement. Restaurants, golf courses, swimming pools, and hobby clubs for computer buffs and quilters make a Sun City development feel less like God’s waiting room than the first-class lounge on a long, leisurely ride into the sunset.

California-born carpenter Del Webb started the company in Phoenix in 1928, a year after a bout of typhoid fever ended his dream of playing professional baseball. Webb built an aircraft plant for Howard Hughes and worked for other defense contractors in the postwar boom; he built the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas and Madison Square Garden in New York. Then, on January 1, 1960, Webb unveiled his masterwork, Sun City. The weekend it opened, Webb sold 237 houses. By 1979, the population had grown to about 46,000.

When the first Sun City opened, the country was deserting the grime and poverty of the cities for sprawling subdivisions with new, airy houses on wide, uncluttered streets. Sun City was part of that phenomenon but with enough of a twist to land Webb on the cover of Time. Catering to a new class of retirees who were energetic and financially secure, he made Sun City a playpen for old people, and in the four decades since, the whole idea of retirement in America has followed. Retirement used to be a time when worn-out laborers lapsed into years of decline and dotage; now it’s become a benchmark age, when still-healthy people, mostly professionals, say good-bye to work and child rearing and take up all the cool stuff they never had time for.

The original Sun City concept hasn’t changed much over the years, except that the houses have gotten bigger. They’re built with seniors in mind–there are no two-story houses because many older people have trouble climbing stairs. The subdivisions offer many practical features that appeal to busy seniors, like nightly security patrols, a big help for residents who travel. The houses are generally smaller and less formal than what their owners have left behind, cutting down on cleaning and maintenance, and because of their sunbird settings the exteriors require little work. “Usually, there’s not even a lawn to mow,” says Schreiner. Landscaping tends toward slow-growing desert plants surrounded by carpets of colored gravel. Recreation centers usually have a restaurant or two, and nearby stores can be reached by golf cart.

Jim Morbeck, a 64-year-old mechanical engineer from Cary, is thinking about buying a house in Sun City Huntley and recently visited two developments in Las Vegas. “It’s not a place for old fogies who want to sit around all day,” he reports. “Everything you need to be an active retiree is right there.” It’s an appealing lifestyle, “except you have to develop a whole new support group once you move out there–make new friends, get new doctors. You’ve left the kids and grandkids behind. And once you get out there, you might find out you don’t like being without seasons after all.” Anne Schaefer, a retired Catholic-school teacher who lives in Wheaton, is also considering a move to Sun City Huntley, but she agrees that sunbird retirement can be stressful: “I can remember my mom saying that she had known so many couples who moved to Florida, and then one or the other of the spouses would die and they’d be left there with no people they had known and loved around them. They can move back but it’s not the same.”

In the past decade executives of the company Webb left behind when he died in 1974 have picked up on the phenomenon Schaefer describes. Marketing research has revealed that eight of ten American retirees stay within 100 miles of home; they don’t want to give up lifelong connections and move to some far-off desert oasis. “We were building our entire business from a very small sector of the potential market,” says Schreiner. “We’ve conquered the warm-weather places, but if we’re going to grow, we need to go after people who don’t relocate.” Now is the time, and Chicago is the place. The oldest baby boomers are 53 now, and the U.S. Census Bureau forecasts that between 1997 and 2010 the number of Americans over age 55 will grow by 18.8 million. According to Del Webb’s research, 13 percent of the Sun Cities’ 90,000 residents came from Illinois, making it the logical state for the company’s first “four-season” development. In Romeoville another retirement community called Carillon by Cambridge has already sold homes to about 1,100 local retirees at a rate of about 300 a year.

But to build a midwestern version of Sun City, Del Webb will have to tweak the usual plan in numerous ways. Homes in Sun City Huntley will have mudrooms; closets will be large enough to accommodate two seasons’ clothes and far enough from the bathrooms to avoid moisture. Plumbing will be better sheltered, and the community buildings will be attached by enclosed walkways instead of open sidewalks. And unlike many of their western and southern counterparts, residents of Sun City Huntley will be staying near their original homes. “We have to acknowledge here that grandchildren are going to be coming over a lot more,” Schreiner says. “They won’t just fly out for vacations, they’ll be over for Sunday dinner.” That means putting in a bigger playground, building more dining space into the houses, and equipping the recreation center for family events like weddings and christenings.

Not only family but work will be nearby; because people can move into Sun City at 55, many do so before they retire, and others over 65 work as consultants. Schreiner says that 75 to 80 percent of residents at most Sun Cities are fully retired, but he expects more Huntley residents to continue working at some level: “It’ll be more like 65 percent fully retired here.” Sun City Huntley’s recreation building will include a business center with fax machines, photocopiers, and Federal Express pickups.

After researching a dozen sites in Chicago’s collar counties, Del Webb announced in late 1995 that it preferred Harvard and Woodstock, and who wouldn’t? They’re two of the more idyllic towns in the region. Company officials said they expected to break ground in summer 1996, but deals with both towns broke down, and the Prime Group, Inc., a Chicago-based development group, began aggressively courting Del Webb. Prime had previously gotten two different developers interested in the Kane County site, but neither deal panned out. “We knew Del Webb was out there,” says executive vice president Gary J. Skoien, “and we went to them with a good package.” Neither side has released details of the Sun City deal, but James Dhamer, Huntley village president since 1984 and a member of the village board since 1978, says the land sold for between $5,000 and $17,000 an acre (he’s not being coy about the price range, either: some parcels would have sold for less than others). Now Schreiner says that “Huntley turned out to be the best choice for us after all.”

Of course it’s his job to say that. The real question, to be answered over the next 15 years, is whether Sun City will turn out to be the best choice for Huntley. “This is a great deal for Huntley,” Dhamer insists. “You can’t find anything to whine and cry about with this deal. What we’re going to get is a lot of taxes and fees from people who aren’t going to use the services their money is paying for. It’s the best kind of money to have.”

Developers of new housing typically pay impact fees to local schools and other municipal agencies; these fees help the institutions fund the additional staff and space required to handle the influx of new users. Del Webb, whose development shouldn’t increase the student body at all, is paying the school district an impact fee of $1,470 per housing unit, and while that’s far less than Huntley’s standard $3,000 fee, it still promises to be a good deal for the school system. The developers are also paying $315 per unit to the Huntley Park District, though Sun City will have 690 acres of open space in the form of two golf courses and a meandering landscaped area along the banks of Ekin Creek and the south branch of the Kishwaukee River. But one possible loser could be the Huntley Public Library: it will receive a $300-per-unit impact fee, but Sun City will have no library, and seniors tend to read more than children raised on a diet of television.

Once they move in, Sun City home owners will pay the same property taxes as everyone else, taxes that support schools, parks, firefighters, and police. “The only thing Huntley has to provide Sun City is police,” Dhamer says, “and crime is going to be pretty low there.” Schreiner, who serves as general manager for Sun City Huntley, agrees with Dhamer: “Generally speaking, our residents are light users of municipal services. They even use less water–without children, there’s less laundry to do. They tend to pay the same as everyone else but use fewer services. So Sun Cities tend to be positive for the local municipality’s fiscal circumstances.”

But other forecasts aren’t so bright. Jerry Hartley, superintendent of Huntley School District 158, wonders whether school finance will become a stormy issue. “Senior citizens have the reputation of being conservative about school-funding referendums,” he says. “Why should they vote to increase the schools’ funds when they aren’t sending any children?” The school district is growing, he notes–16 percent in 1994, 18 percent in 1995, 19 percent in 1996, and 20 percent in 1997–yet Huntley has voted down three out of four funding referendums. As the farmland separating Huntley, Crystal Lake, Lake in the Hills, and Algonquin fills in with subdivisions, that growth promises to continue. When the district needs money for new schools, Sun City residents might unite against any funding measure that offers them no direct benefit. Yet Anne Schaefer argues that seniors won’t be so selfish with their votes. “Most of the people in Sun City will have grandchildren, and they’ll be aware of the need to educate our children,” she says, “so I don’t see the presence of a lot of senior citizens in town militating against a tax increase that is needed. If I live there, I won’t let it happen.”

Residents of Sun City Huntley could pump money into the local economy when they shop and dine out; upper-middle-class retirees generally have a lot of disposable income to spend on themselves and their grandchildren. But newcomers might not flock to downtown Huntley’s small, tired assortment of stores and restaurants when they have the outlet mall and other attractions planned for the now-empty land surrounding Sun City. Downtown Huntley, two miles north of the subdivision on the severely clogged Highway 47, is a hodgepodge of aging bars, diners, and new malls with doughnut and pizza franchises. The town’s dinky square is ringed by a nondescript post office, the village hall, and a few small retailers, most notably a Catholic bookstore in a blue Victorian storefront. The meager village center sports a few bars, and on 47 in the heart of town stands Huntley Dairy Mart, a 50s-style drive-in that serves burgers, shakes, and ice cream under a red-and-white awning. “It isn’t much of a downtown,” says Jim Morbeck. “It’s kind of like a redneck village. You wouldn’t have much reason to drive up there from Sun City unless you were bored with your usual places and wanted to look around.”

Meanwhile the outlet mall, near Sun City on the south side of town, anchors a blossoming retail district. The Prime Group, which sold Del Webb all but 100 acres of what will become Sun City, is hatching 240 acres of retail and medical offices immediately east of it across Highway 47. There’s even been talk of building an overpass or underpass that would allow the seniors to tool across the highway in their golf carts. In November another developer announced plans to build a complex of hotels, restaurants, and a movie theater on a 120-acre parcel that borders Sun City on three sides; his blueprint includes a central courtyard modeled after Woodstock’s town square.

Despite these enticements, Skoien believes that Sun City residents will still patronize downtown Huntley. “Seniors are more likely to get in their cars and drive around to check things out, see what else is out there,” he says. “They have time. Time is on their side, in one sense.” But Larry Kahl, a lifelong resident of Huntley who lives just a block off the town square, can’t imagine what would pull people downtown when they have so many options right next door. “There’s no reason for them to drive into town with the traffic lights and a railroad crossing,” he says. “They’ll just stay down at their end of town and leave all this stuff up here alone.”

The very prospect of 9,000 elderly drivers might be enough to give some townspeople pause. At 54, Kahl borders the target age group for Sun City, but even he worries about what he calls “the Florida slows” worsening an already congested Highway 47. “I’ve driven behind them in Florida, and it gets things backed up for a mile,” he says. “We already have backups that are pretty bad along 47. After Sun City comes, traffic will just stand still.” Dhamer disagrees: if you’re going to have thousands of new residents driving your streets, he reasons, seniors are the best possible group. Their daily routines aren’t tied to rush hour, so they might stay home during the busiest times of day. They have no children to ferry around, so the number of daily trips per household is probably lower. And many elderly couples get along with only one car. “They probably won’t even use that very much,” he says. “They’ll just get around Sun City in the golf cart and not drive the car for days at a time.”

Dhamer doesn’t want to see the big fish wriggle off the line again. In the early 70s an Ohio developer wanted to build a $50 million amusement park on a 70-acre parcel near the tollway, but the deal fell through, and Dhamer, who was on the town planning board at the time, can still taste the lost possibilities. “Up in Gurnee, where they put Great America, they get a million dollars a year in sales tax,” he says. “Our school district would never have had any trouble with that kind of money coming in.” Now Huntley will finally get an amusement park of sorts, with golf carts instead of roller coasters. One hopes that Sun City will be a good ride for everyone, because it’s too late to hop off.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Randy Tunnell.