“Gary keeps to himself,” said Gary Davis, president of the Republican Club of Sumter Landing, one of three GOP clubs in the Villages. (There are two Democratic clubs.)
Those who say they have seen Morse walk amid the golf carts say he often sports a cowboy hat and boots. They say he seems down-to- earth.
“He’s like a ‘regular Joe.’ He really blends in,” said Kaye Johnson, who works at a Caribbean-themed apparel shop.
She didn’t know about his private dining club. The entrance is unmarked, tucked behind one of the retail buildings at the Lake Sumter Landing Market Square. But climb the stairs to the second floor, and a sign welcomes the initiated: the Angler’s Retreat Fish Camp. A lushly carpeted dining room, it is decorated like a Michigan hunting lodge. A bartender stocking shelves behind the cherrywood bar says Morse eats there with his family and select members.
“You must be asked to join,” the bartender says, before telling the reporter to leave.
Morse moved to Florida from Michigan in 1983 to work with his dad. They sold Central Florida homes with a special pitch: free golf.
The community was a hit with northern retirees, and sales reached $40 million by 1987, according to a book about the Villages, Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias.
By 1992, the development had about 3,500 acres. Morse lined up further expansion by getting the project approved as a special taxing district. The designation let Morse float tax-free municipal bonds that could be paid back by fees charged to residents.
Morse has since established 12 special taxing districts that, from November 1993 to October 2004, issued a total of $426 million in bond principal — all of it tax-exempt, according to the Internal Revenue Service. Of that debt, about $300 million has yet to be paid back.
To say Morse is fabulously wealthy might be an understatement.
Last year, the holding company of the Villages Ltd. generated at least $550 million in revenue.
Property records show Morse and his wife, Renee, own a home in the Villages worth more than $1 million. Morse owns four corporate jets and a 147-foot luxury yacht called Cracker Bay, which can accommodate up to 12 guests in five suites and nine crew members.
As his fortune has grown, so has his mastery of the political process.
With the Villages stretching across more than 20,000 acres and three counties (and is expected to contain 56,508 homes by 2018), what local officials decide can have huge ramifications for his bottom line.
Karen Krauss, Sumter County’s supervisor of elections, remembers voting for and against Morse’s various requests for expansion of the project when she served on the County Commission in the 1990s.
“I like what Gary’s done, and the Villages have provided a lot of jobs here,” Krauss said. “But if I had my druthers, I would have preferred the land had stayed pristine.”
Morse grew frustrated by the Sumter County Commission’s occasional limitations of his expansion requests, said former Commissioner Jim Roberts. After the commission required Morse to meet a series of conditions to expand, such as helping pay for roads, Morse pushed to pass a referendum changing how commissioners were elected.
Instead of having voters in districts elect commissioners in Sumter, after 2004 all commissioners were elected countywide. That meant the Villages, where 65 percent of the county’s voters reside, controlled who would get elected.