Paulucci touted Sanford as retirement community

If Jeno Paulucci had his way, the east end of 1st Street in downtown Sanford would look very different – and very old.

Forty years ago today, March 27, 1980, Paulucci told Sanford City Commissioners his vision was for 3 high-rise buildings to be constructed on his nearly 2-acre parcel of land at East 1st Street and Mellonville Avenue.

Paulucci’s vision was that Sanford would become a mecca for retirees. A “Golden Age Center,” so to speak.

“All I’m telling you is that we do have some plans that, hopefully, will materialize that have to do with our greatest asset here in Sanford, and that is that (Sanford) is a marvelous place to retire for the ‘golden age’ of people’s lives.”

Jeno Paulucci, Sanford Herald, March 27, 1980

Under Paulucci’s plan, two of the three high-rises would be senior living apartments or condos and the third high-rise would house a theater, swimming pool, meeting rooms, a nursing center and a conference center.

His plan also called for the Seminole Memorial Hospital (today its the Seminole County Services building to become a nursing home. In 1980, the hospital was completing construction of its current facility on Seminole Boulevard, west of downtown.

Obviously none of that came to pass. So what went wrong (or right depending on your perspective)?

I’m not quite sure, but part of the issue was that Paulucci’s vision seemed to rely heavily on state and federal money.

According to the Sanford Herald article at the time, Paulucci never mentioned how much money he was investing in the project. That’s highly unusual. In early stage planning, developers are always quick to brag about how much a development might cost.

The Herald reported that city commissioners decided to pursue the plan because they were “spurred on by the offer of assistance from entrepreneur Jeno Paulucci in gaining state and federal funding.”

Read that again. Jeno wasn’t offering to fund anything. He was offering to help the city get “state and federal funding.”

The Herald also included a quote from Jeno that is very telling in hindsight. Jeno told city officials that what the “Pallucci family does privately does not hinge on what the community does.”

I found a Herald article from April 14, 1980 that said a meeting between Sanford officials and Gov. Bob Graham were “fruitful.” That’s a polite way of saying the governor was gracious in taking the meeting, but never thought another thing about Sanford’s plan once it was done.

I believe Jeno may have made some investment had state and federal dollars begun flowing, but something else happened not long after those 1980 meetings that caught Jeno’s attention.

In 1985, Jeno sold his second frozen foods business, Jeno’s Inc., to Pillsbury for $135 million ($329 million in 2020). That’s the same year he began developing Heathrow, both the residential community and business park.

I think what Jeno was really hoping to get out of those meetings was something that benefited the city of Lake Mary more than Sanford.

Throughout the 1970s the south end of the county saw an economic boom with the Altamonte Mall and other nearby development. Jeno’s sold the “Golden Age Center” development as a way to spur economic development in the north end of Seminole County.

The other part of Jeno’s plan that the Sanford City Commission approved at his request was an extension of sewer service to a 25-acre property on Rantoul Lane – in the city of Lake Mary.

The city also agreed – again at Jeno’s request – to help Lake Mary get federal funding for a lift station to service the property.

Jeno wanted the sewer service extended because he had plans to build a 200-unit townhome community.

Why Sanford agreed to Jeno’s request to help Lake Mary is baffling. Jeno’s property was part of 300 acres that Sanford and Lake Mary had been fighting over in court. Sanford had annexed the land, but Lake Mary said it was included in the boundaries of its city charter.

A judge sided with Lake Mary, so I’m not sure why Sanford commissioners agreed to help Jeno and Lake Mary. Maybe they thought Jeno was serious about building that Golden Age Center. If you read Jeno’s comments carefully in the Herald article, however, he didn’t commit to do anything more than lobbying state and federal officials.

I don’t think Jeno was trying to pull a fast one, but I also don’t think he was as committed to the Golden Age Center as city commissioners believed he was.

In the end, Lake Mary got to increase its tax base because of the generosity of Sanford City Commissioners, and Sanford still has a vacant piece of land at 1st and Mellonville.


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