|Tavares condo development offers retirement like no other for Indians |
March 20, 2012|By Ludmilla Lelis, Orlando Sentinel
The business of building condos for Northerners retiring to Florida collapsed in the housing bust, but one unusual Lake County development is an exception: a gated community that caters to Indian immigrants buying into that last piece of the American dream.
ShantiNiketan, a condo complex in Tavares, may be the only retirement development in the U.S where residents dine on Indian cuisine, meditate in a prayer room stocked with Hindu statues and enjoy Bollywood movie nights.
"I call this place heaven," said Mahesh Shastri, a Hindu priest from New York. "I have traveled the world, the Far East, Middle East and Europe, and America, the land of opportunity. "But I call this place heaven because it is bliss. You can't find another place like this."
And it's a financial success, too, with the original 54 condominiums sold out and a second phase of 100 condos under construction. ShantiNiketan fills a niche other developers haven't discovered, said its CEO, Iggy Ignatius. Two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot condos sell for $160,000 to $170,000.
"This is the start of something big: ethnic retirement communities," said Ignatius, himself a retired Indian immigrant. "In retirement, they like the comforts of their own culture, and that's what we give them here."
Of the countless retirement developments that have sprung up throughout Florida, a few focus on particular lifestyles, such as gay and lesbian communities in South Florida. But a condo complex built for a specific immigrant group is a new idea, said David Bruns, spokesman for AARP Florida.
"This is very unusual and remarkable that it is a success, when the movement of retirees to Florida had hit a brick wall," Bruns said.
A development like ShantiNiketan may be a natural progression of Indian immigration to the U.S., said Michelle Mittelstadt, a spokeswoman for the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank inWashington, D.C.
The U.S. is home to 1.6 million Indian immigrants, making them the third-largest foreign-born group after Mexicans and Filipinos, Mittelstadt said. They arrived with medical or engineering degrees or they emigrated to study at American universities. And many work in professional careers, with 22 percent in information technology, 18 percent in business and finance, 9 percent in science and engineering and 11 percent in medicine.
The need for an Indian retirement haven was apparent to Ignatius, who has an MBA and an engineering degree and was retiring from a 20-year IT career in Michigan.
He and his friends debated whether to return to India in their old age. They could live luxuriously but without easy access to the same level of medical care. And they would live a half a world away from their American-born children and grandchildren.
Instead, he decided to start a development in Florida with the comforts of the homeland. They would eat rotis and dals; celebrate the holiday Diwali, which honors the victory of good over evil; live among others who speak Hindi or Gujarati; and watch satellite TV with Indian channels. He named his complex ShantiNiketan, which translates as "peace house" and is also the name of the university town near Calcutta made famous by the late Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
In February 2008, Ignatius bought land in Tavares and began construction of the condos and the centerpiece of the community: a 120-seat dining hall that also could serve as a movie theater. He runs the facility as a nonprofit and lives there among the other residents: former doctors, engineers and accountants who relocated from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Connecticut.
Ignatius' son, Jeff Ignatius, is overseeing construction of a second phase for ShantiNiketan, which will be twice the size and was granted an impact-fee exemption, making it more affordable to build.
Lake County wasn't an obvious choice for an Indian community. The 2010 census shows that Asians make up just 1.7 percent of the county population. The Hindu temple is 38 miles away in Casselberry.
But officials of Tavares, with a population of about 14,000, were eager to encourage the development.
"It is still Lake County, and we're not as culturally diverse as other cities, but I thought it was a unique idea to have a group of people enjoying their culture together," Tavares Mayor Bob Wolfe said.