First Senior Citizen Development in NJ Turns 50
The year was 1963 and big changes were about to come to Ocean County when plans for a new kind of housing development designed just for seniors were unveiled by developer and sports franchise owner Robert J. Schmertz.
The total retirement community designed to meet the recreational, physical, social and cultural needs of adults 55 and older was called Leisure Village and it would change the landscape of Lakewood and Ocean County forever.
“Retirees from all over the region located to Leisure Village; and in 1970, Leisure Village accounted for 20 percent of the city of Lakewood’s population. According to the 2010 census, one of every 12 people living in Lakewood resided within our village,” said Fred W. Hogan, president of the Leisure Village Board of Trustees, during a recent 50th anniversary celebration of New Jersey’s first retirement community.
“When the village opened, Route 70 was a wooded area and there were many surrounding roads that were still dirt. Downtown Lakewood was the shopping district. There were no malls, no shopping centers,” he said. “If you wanted to go the movies, you headed to the Strand Theatre. For a night on the town, you may have visited the Grossman Hotel or the Laurel in the Pines Hotel for dinner and dancing.”
The average cost for a unit in Leisure Village was $12,000; a new car cost $2,800; a first class stamp cost a nickel; and gas was 29 cents a gallon, he reminisced.
The community’s Golden Jubilee was celebrated during a brunch at Dorchester Hall. Dubbed “50 Years of Living the Life,” the program featured legislators, mayors past and president, and other notables from Lakewood, Ocean County, and New Jersey.
Senator Robert Singer, who has also served as an elected official in Lakewood for more than 30 years, recalled that Schmertz’s original vision for Leisure Village featuring two-story homes was almost a failure until the developer realized that senior citizens preferred living on one level. After a redesign, the project took off and Schmertz’s Leisure Technology couldn’t build the housing units as fast as they were being sold.
It’s possible that the ads in 11 major newspapers, including an eight-page supplement in the New York Times, radio ads, billboards and Actress Gloria Swanson’s public appearances to promote the senior development played a role in boosting sales.
The senator noted that although the township was leery of the concept at first, the township’s new residents were a tremendous asset because they did not drain the township’s services by requiring the construction of additional schools and the seniors also shared their knowledge and time by volunteering.
“They volunteered at the hospital, they volunteered in the schools, and they volunteered in all the nonprofit organizations around. They donated money, they were active in their church, and they were active in their synagogue,” he said. “They played an important part in the growth of Lakewood.”
Senator Singer acknowledged how the township and new retirement communities have changed, citing Four Seasons, Fairways, and the Enclave as retirement communities where homes are huge, often 3,000-square-feet, and each is individual. The retirement communities now are also much smaller.
Leisure Village, however, is still the largest retirement community in Lakewood, said the senator, who presented the trustees with a resolution from the Senate and Assembly congratulating the community for celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Lakewood Deputy Mayor Steven Langert who spoke for the entire town council said, “How wonderful it is to participate in the 50th anniversary of Original Leisure Village. I was thinking about it on my way here that Leisure Village is almost old enough to live in its own community!”
According to the development’s website, Leisure Village consists of 457 acres, 2,433 units, 21 miles of lighted streets, 51 miles of lighted concrete sidewalks, 240 acres of lawn, seven freshwater lakes, an administration building, two recreational centers – Buckingham and Dorchester halls, a 9-hole Pitch and Putt golf course, a total of 34 shuffleboard courts, four bocce courts and four horseshoe courts, a fitness center, two swimming pools, two parks, including one in memory the developer who died in 1975, a picnic area, and equipment and storage maintenance buildings.
The community also has a health care center in the administration building that is nurse-directed and financed solely by contributions, as well as a tax return program to help residents complete their annual tax returns.
Additionally, residents can enjoy an active Kiwanis Club and a variety of social clubs, plus a choral group, a tap dancing group, and a theater group. Residents agree that “Living the Life” is not just a motto.