Roy Richards, past president of West Winds Village on State Road 70 east of Bradenton, lit a piece of paper symbolizing a paid mortgage contract during a mortgage-burning party Sunday afternoon in front of a crowd of nearly 300 people.
As the paper burned, the audience clapped and cheered.
“Today I don’t know how we made it,” said Richards, an active board member who has been instrumental with numerous park projects, including the park purchase. “We the residents own everything here now. The mortgage is paid off.”
The final payment on the $7.3 million mortgage on the mobile home park was paid Oct. 31, 2008, but it wasn’t until now, after many of the part-time residents had returned, that the community got to celebrate the momentous occasion.
“Burning the mortgage is an exceptional achievement, especially in such a short time frame,” said Ted McCormick, a park resident for the past seven years who was the master of ceremonies for the event. “It was the dedication, the determination and the foresight of our elders that this was achieved. I do applaud you.”
The park purchase was initiated in 1991 shortly after it was announced there would be a lot rent increase, said Richards. The board of directors decided it might be better to buy the park than rent after it was learned owner Bill Jackson had the property up for sale.
“Everyone had to pay lot rent,” recalled Richards. “You didn’t own the lot.”
Few in the park thought the $7.3 million price tag was reasonable, and some even thought such a deal was impossible, recalled Don Hutchinson, a resident since 1986.
To make it work, residents were asked to buy shares at $20,000 each.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Hutchinson. “We were paying very low rent. To dish out $20,000 was not something easy to grasp.”
But a core group of residents remained steadfast to the task even though most of them were no longer around to celebrate their hard work, according to Marjorie Greene-Baker, whose husband was a member of that group.
“I just want everyone to remember the people that made this possible,” she reminded the audience. “All of these men are gone. Not one of them is here to see this day.”
Longtime residents like Greene-Baker took turns talking from the podium, recalling what it was like before the ceremonious mortgage-burning took place. West Winds Village used to be called Sand Man, and was one of two mobile home parks in that area that had been around since the 1970s, recalled Marie Bolduc, who moved with her husband, Bob, to the park in 1975.
Back then, it was a family park, not a 55-and-older community, she said. The park had a kiddie pool and a childcare facility. Bolduc managed the office for a few years while her husband did maintenance around the community.
Things were very different then, she said.
“There were only trees to the north,” said Bolduc. “There was a double-wide that raised peacocks across the road that would wander into the park.”
Larry Lewis remembered when he moved to the park in 1979, the minimum age was 45 and his rent, only $75. Semi truck trailers carrying oranges to Tropicana raced back and forth down the two lanes of S.R. 70, and school buses carrying children stopped in front of the park.
“Turning right or left on S.R. 70 was a nightmare,” he said.
Safety was always of utmost importance within the park, in spite of rumors circulating about a “house of ill repute” operating somewhere within the park. And then there was this colorful character called “Stella,” he recalled, who lived near his home and brewed her own beer in a shed.
“It smelled like you were on an Anheuser-Busch tour,” said Lewis, smirking as he retold the story. “That’s the way I remember West Winds then and now.”
Elrita Bell moved to the park in 1978. She and her husband stumbled upon West Winds after he saw an ad for mobile homes for rent in the newspaper. After touring a few of the less desirable homes for sale in the park, they found one they liked and stayed.
Today the park boasts 430 homes, with numerous daily activities including dances, potluck dinners, monthly parties, dance lessons, and swimming and exercise classes. And the people remain as friendly and helpful as the day Elrita Bell and her husband unloaded their trailer into their new mobile home. She said it was the best decision they made 31 years ago.
“It was just nice people, and it’s still a lot of great people here,” she said.