Gray and Gay? These Communities Want You
By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2004; Page A01
PALMETTO, Fla. -- Amid the flowering bougainvillea, whooshing sprinklers and croaking snapping turtles, it's easy to forget that the Palms of Manasota is no ordinary, sun-soaked Florida retirement community of tanned seniors in shorts padding around tile-roofed villas.
"It's just wonderful to be able to take a walk and hold hands," said Edward Kobee, 69, a burly retired naval weapons systems analyst who moved to the Palms last December from Laurel, Md.
His partner of 17 years nodded his agreement. "We didn't want to go back in the closet just to be in a retirement community," said Alfred Usack, 73, a retired CIA analyst with a trim white mustache who lived in the Washington area for 46 years. "We'd had enough of that."
As one of a handful of retirement communities for gay men and lesbians built in the past few years, the Palms, set amid citrus groves and tomato-packing plants south of St. Petersburg, is a quiet, calm place -- conservative, its residents insist. It is also a trailblazer, and a precursor.
Largely unnoticed amid the uproar and invective over same-sex marriage, gay developers, activists and entrepreneurs are building an archipelago of gay retirement communities across the Sun Belt.
The projects, mostly unopposed and in at least one instance a beneficiary of federal tax breaks, are striking in their variety and ambition, reflecting what their backers describe as a huge untapped market of aging gay men and lesbians in all income brackets. Many have long waiting lists, and some are likely to be pricey.
The boom projects underway include a $32 million resort in central Santa Fe, N.M., whose developer likens it to a boutique hotel with extensive medical care facilities and outlying cottages, townhouses and apartments; a 165-acre tract in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where 90 lots are set amid streams and walking trails; a five-story building for low-income gay and lesbian seniors in the heart of Hollywood; and an apartment building in midtown Phoenix renovated from a hotel backed in the 1970s by Cary Grant.
Other projects, in Boston, San Francisco, Arizona, Palm Springs, Calif., and elsewhere, are on the drawing boards as developers line up financing, check market surveys or hammer out architectural plans.
"Obviously it's something everybody's been dreaming of," said Joy Silver, the developer and driving force behind Rainbow Vision, the resort in Santa Fe, which expects to break ground in July on one of the grander projects in the works.
Silver, a New Yorker who moved to Santa Fe in 1998, said more than 100 people have put down deposits of $1,000 and $500 for the planned 146 cottages, townhouses and apartments.
"Can you imagine? A hundred people on the waiting list and we don't even have a shovel in the ground yet," said Silver, 48.
Various estimates, including one by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, put the number of homosexuals in America who are older than 65 at 1 million to 3 million. By 2030, when a fifth of Americans will be older than 65, it is thought at least 4 million in that group will be gay.
Mindful of the demographics, developers are eyeing even more projects. Linda Flading, sales and marketing manager at the Palms, says she takes several calls a month from developers in central Florida seeking advice and information.
"Large companies that own chains of housing for the elderly are going to see this as a niche market, and you'll see more traditional types of facilities advertising they have a gay wing or a floor," said Jean Quam, a professor of social work at the University of Minnesota and a lesbian who has written widely on the subject. "It's just a matter of time."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Partners Edward Kobee, left, and Alfred Usack moved to the Palms of Manasota, a gay retirement community in Palmetto, Fla., from Laurel.
(Lee Hockstader -- The Washington Post)