School, street namesake Del Webb created Sun City
By Jan Hogan
VIEW STAFF WRITER
May 1, 2012
The name Del Webb is splashed all over Summerlin. There's also a middle school named for him in Henderson.
Del E. Webb was born in 1899, the son of Ernest G. and Henrietta S. Webb of Fresno, Calif. His father went broke in 1914, so Webb dropped out of high school and became a carpenter's apprentice. In 1919, Webb married his high school sweetheart, Hazel Lenora Church, a nurse. A lifelong baseball fan, he dreamed of being a major-league pitcher. Webb played for minor-league teams in Oakland, Alameda, Modesto and other places in California. An exhibition game at San Quentin State Prison destroyed those dreams. He caught typhoid fever from an inmate and became seriously ill, dropping to 99 pounds, and moved to Phoenix, where he took a year to recover. There were always construction jobs, but not all of them were for competent people. After his paycheck bounced from a construction company, Webb set out on his own in 1928 and opened Del E. Webb, Contractor. Its assets consisted of a concrete mixer, 10 wheelbarrows, 20 shovels and 10 picks. His other asset was his reputation, as he was known as a can-do type of guy.
Webb bid for and was awarded a number of military contracts during World War II, including the construction of the Poston War Relocation Center near Parker, Ariz., where more than 17,000 Japanese-Americans were housed. That's when things began rolling.
Webb developed a chain of motor hotels under the name Hiway House. He also developed Del Webb's Towne House hotels. In 1946, Webb entered the Las Vegas market when mobster Bugsy Siegel wanted to hire him to build the Flamingo Hotel. It was an offer he couldn't refuse.
Dealing with the mob brought its own set of concerns. One story goes like this:
Siegel, who had bragged that he had personally killed 12 people, complained that another mob figure was getting out of line.
"I'm going to kill that S.O.B., too," Siegel said in front of Webb.
Seeing the look on the contractor's face, Siegel quickly reassured him, saying, "Del, don't worry. We only kill each other."
Webb later owned his own casinos - the Sahara, the Thunderbird Hotel, the Lucky Club and The Mint in Las Vegas and the Sahara Tahoe in Stateline. To ensure that the mob was not running his hotel-casinos, Webb hired people from other businesses. Bill Bennett, for example, who would later be credited with making Circus Circus into a money-making operation, had a background in operating a furniture store.
"I think his real impact," said professor David Schwartz, director for gaming research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, "was he had the first corporate-owned casino in Las Vegas with the Sahara and The Mint ... (as such) there's definitely a different level of scrutiny.
"Obviously you've got FCC filing and you've got access to more mainstream capital. When they bought those in 1961, it was actually against the law for a public corporation to own a casino, to have a (gaming) license. So they had this deal where they set up this company called Consolidated Casino Corporation, owned by some of the big stockholders. They then applied for the license and got the license."
In 1978, the company was the largest gaming employer in Nevada with an estimated 7,000 workers.
A.D. Hopkins, a retired journalist, said, "He looked for opportunities where the conventional way of doing things was not efficient. There's a famous example that every Webb construction office was set up the same; the time sheets were kept in a particular drawer, the work schedule in a particular drawer, so that the unexpected absence of a key employee did not throw everything into turmoil."
Not content to have just gambling, Webb lured tourists to his hotels with events such as The Mint 400, an off-road race, the Sahara Gun Show, the Soldier of Fortune magazine convention and an international convention of strippers.
In 1945, Webb, along with partners Dan Topping and Larry MacPhail, bought the New York Yankees, paying $2.8 million for the baseball team. During the time Webb owned them, the Yankees won 10 World Series.
In 1948, Del Webb Corp. gambled on a long-term project: building 600 houses and a shopping center in Tucson, Ariz., in one of the first master-planned communities in America, Pueblo Gardens. About 15 years later, he set out to build Sun City in Arizona.
Back then, it wasn't known whether there was a market big enough to fill a master-planned community for retirees; some speculated that older Americans did nothing more than grow depressed and die early, especially when separated from family. Webb's company did some market research before taking the leap and learned that a substantial number of retirees were more than willing to put distance between themselves and family members and move to the fresh air of the Southwest, to boot.
Del Webb's Sun City was launched Jan. 1, 1960, with five home models, a recreation center, a shopping center and a golf course. An estimated 100,000 people showed up for opening weekend, 10 times more than expected. The success of the venture resulted in Webb being on the Aug. 3, 1962, cover of Time magazine.
He would repeat that success with retirement communities in Las Vegas two decades later.
Bill Winchester has been a Sun City Summerlin resident for 11 years. He estimated that almost all in the retirement community know who Del Webb was.
"We'll use the word 'most,' " he said. "Somehow, someway, it gets into their conversation. Even some of the newbies, the real estate people make sure they know."
He said the idea that retired people just want to sit in rocking chairs was far from reality and that "any time there's some type of special activity, you can't get a parking space ... this is a very active community."
About this time, Webb was in contact with Howard Hughes, who had interests in Las Vegas. The reclusive Hughes ensured that their meetings had no witnesses, calling up Webb to relay directions such as, "Go 10 miles to a dirt road, then go five miles to the top of a sand dune, then blink your headlights twice."
No matter how eccentric, whatever Hughes wanted Webb to build, the company did it. Webb did more than $1 billion worth of business with Hughes.
The Del Webb Corp. built Sun City Summerlin in 1988. That was followed by Sun City MacDonald Ranch in Henderson, about 9,500 homes. In October 1998, it opened Anthem, a master-planned community in Henderson. The Del Webb Corp. is now part of the Pulte family of home builders.
Webb was divorced in 1952. In 1961, he married Toni Ince, a buyer for Bullocks Wilshire department store in Los Angeles and 22 years his junior. Though he died in 1974, Webb's legacy lives on through his self-named foundation, created in 1960, which has supported countless health care centers, universities, food banks, foundations and other entities.