From citrus groves to vibrant senior living

Today there are 500 privately owned properties in Aladdin Villas. Most are single lots, although some are larger. Brick houses dominate in the community, with some mobile homes as well. Commonly owned buildings and courts, along with these private homes, create a community where Winter Texans as well as year-long residents enjoy the oasis they jointly manage with their volunteer efforts.

But for the descendents of that ancestral Indian, the Spanish conquerors, and generations of Americans, the Rio Grande Valley was not easy to develop. Nor was Aladdin Villas. This is the abbreviated story.

Imagine it was 300 years ago. You were an Indian of the Coahuiltecan tribe on a hunting expedition for deer or bison that roamed what is now called the Rio Grande Valley. If you walked north a couple of miles from what Americans would later name the Rio Grande River, you may have stood on land that eventually became Aladdin Villas. You would have seen a semi-arid vista with thorny trees and bushes such as mesquite, Texas ebony and fiddlewood, and cacti such as nopal prickly pear and rough agave. Periodic rains would drench the arid land, the river would swell and sometimes overflow its banks, and wildflowers such as Texas lantana, turk’s cap and scarlet sage would briefly bloom.

In 1760, a Spanish citizen, Senora Maria Cantu, was awarded the land on which Aladdin Villas was later developed, the first time such land had been owned. Hers was a porcion, starting at the Rio de Norte (Rio Grande River) and measuring just over half a mile wide and extending 14 miles north.

With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, ending the Mexican American War, the United States government took possession of the land. As states developed, they quarreled over division of the Rio Grande and its waters and agreement on divisions wouldn’t be reached until 1944. But, during that time the fertile land in the area produced cotton and fed cattle. Many vegetables grew well and citrus trees thrived.

John Shary, a land investor and developer, came to the Rio Grande Valley in 1912 and he acquired the land that is now Aladdin Villas and planted groves of citrus trees in the twenties and thirties. In 1953 The Falcon Dam was built to control flood waters and in 1967 Hurricane Beulah tested the dam, demonstrating that the land was safe for building and development. By then the population of Mission, Texas, was between thirteen and fourteen thousand—and today has reached over eighty thousand.

Mobile home and recreational vehicle parks were being developed all over the area by the early 1980s as senior citizens turned south for warm winters or for full-time living. A venture capitalist, Homer Small, purchased 84 acres of land from the Shary estate in 1982 for $126,000. Small held more than half of the stock of the corporation he called Sunburst Properties. With a hefty bank loan, he began the development of Aladdin Villas. Just to pay the interest on the loan required the immediate sale of 26 properties.

Thus, the early purchasers saw only citrus trees and a plat showing lot numbers and streets to be put in by the City of Mission. At least twelve couples or individuals had the courage to buy properties in the spring of 1983, with no streets, no sewers, no water and no zoning decision. They were, however, promised full return of their money if the clubhouse, water, sewer, and streets were not in by that fall. The City soon zoned Aladdin for modular and mobile homes and Aladdin Villas was to be a subdivision of the City, a “community,” not a mobile home and RV “park.” Stewart Road ran through the middle of Small’s property and the area west of Stewart was developed first, and called the West side, with the East side to follow soon thereafter.

Small accomplished what he promised. Utilities as well as streets were put in with the City being responsible for maintenance of the streets. The West Hall or clubhouse was built, complete with swimming pool, hot tubs, a large state-of-the-art kitchen and a dining area to hold over 500 people. Many new owners lived in RVs while their brick homes were built or their mobile homes went into place. It was also the year of the devastating Christmas freeze that destroyed many citrus trees and other vegetation, something that had not occurred since the 1950s. That freeze would have the effect of diminishing the winter migration of Northerners to the Rio Grande Valley.

The early residents at Aladdin organized themselves quickly, joining together for parties and dinners and card games, as well as to make plans for their community. An Activities Chairman was elected as 1983 turned to 1984. While Small, as Sunburst Properties, managed the common properties and business of the community at that time, it was clearly understood that the residents would be in charge of the activities, and pay for them. From the start, the residents decided to volunteer their efforts and elect an Activities Chairman rather than hiring one. Small also appointed a “Management Committee,” made up of residents, which would later be called the “Advisory Committee,” to assist in community-building plans.

The names of fifty-five residents of Aladdin Villas were recorded in 1984, and 100 lots had been sold, so the community was growing—and fast. That year the activities committee planned money-making ventures, including a style show and luncheon, a tradition that continues today with residents showing off the latest fashions from area stores and drawing crowds from around the area.

Volunteers also organized a camera club, put on pancake breakfasts, arranged pot-luck dinners, and organized ceramics, quilting, and gourmet cooking classes. They put in shuffleboard and tennis courts and made some money on Tupperware sales and monthly arts, crafts and flea markets held in the West Hall during the winter months, another tradition that continues today. To salvage volunteers’ continued efforts and include plenty of time for fun and relaxation, jobs were divided into manageable portions.

Small announced that East Aladdin would get a clubhouse, and while residents expressed skepticism about putting up such a building in hard times and rejected the notion of an assessment to pay for it, Small went ahead with the plans. It was not a modest building. It included a lapidary shop as well as a carpentry shop, a large meeting room and a smaller room for card games and would include a stained glass shop in future years.

In 1985, residents organized dances to draw Winter Texans from other parks, but this endeavor met with limited success since there were so many parks all competing for the same bands and people. Renting out the halls to outside groups, however, drew many people, netting those early residents $2,600 during early 1985, and showing off the community. Eventually, that practice was stopped to allow residents continual access to the buildings, but it helped with finances early on.

Also in 1985, residents developed bylaws for the activities program, an endeavor that took a great deal of research and weeks of hard work. The first issue of News and Views, a publication that continues to this day, was published by volunteer residents. And, as early as that year, a resident made the boat-rocking suggestion that the community, that is the residents, should consider incorporation of the Aladdin organization to be run by themselves.

Sunburst Properties began to feel serious budget problems and the residents were feeling some of the pinch by needing to pay for garbage collection and providing the swimming pool upkeep in addition to the $150 yearly maintenance fees they were paying. In 1987, financial issues became even more obvious. In March of that year, Small stated his desire to turn over the upkeep, maintenance and operation of all the Common Elements to the residents’ Advisory Committee, although Sunburst would continue to act on behalf of the Association until eighty percent of the lots had been sold, as specified in the original agreement.

Negotiations ensued. The residents and Small reached an agreement that Sunburst would continue to maintain the Common Elements, that residents owning more than one lot would pay the maintenance fee on each lot, that the activities committee would set up guidelines to eliminate wasted utilities, and that costly activities not beneficial to a reasonable number of residents would be eliminated.

In spite of the money concerns, activities and life at Aladdin continued to go well. The fashion show was a good money-maker and the monthly Arts and Crafts Days was the biggest earner for the growing community.

By 1988, a number of the parks in the valley went under. Small requested approval for residents to pay an additional $100 maintenance fee. Residents were overwhelmingly opposed, but seventy-five percent of them favored using proceeds from activities for legal advise on forming a corporate homeowners association and by March, three officers to lead development of the to-be-formed corporation were elected.

In June, 1988, Aladdin Villas filed papers to incorporate and bylaws were in the process of being drawn. By October the proposed bylaws were explained to the community. There was a clear demarcation between what would be the Aladdin Villas Corporate Board and the Aladdin Villas Activities Committee, with the Activities Director being one of several elected vice-presidents of the Corporation.

The members of the new corporation, that is the owners of properties, met November 29, 1988. They approved the corporation’s certificate, articles of incorporation, and bylaws. Aladdin Villas Property Owners Association, Inc. would take over ownership of the Common Elements from Sunburst Properties at the end of that year.

By this time, the carpentry shop had become the “woodworking shop.” Residents using the shop built many items for use by the community, as well as their own projects. In addition, a new kiln was added for ceramics, an outdoor shower was put in by the pool, and the kitchen was remodeled. Much of the work was done by volunteers.

The newly formed corporation needed officers, and amazingly, many residents were willing to throw their hats in the ring. There were three candidates for president, six for senior vice president and at least two for all of the other offices. That number of candidates for the corporate board has not been exceeded in recent years. Many residents were demonstrating knowledge and skills learned in their earlier lives, including corporation management, accounting, building construction and contracting, as well as writing, editing, office management, cooking and teaching of crafts.

One of the earliest financial decisions was to contract with a tax valuation consulting firm. That led to a major reduction in real estate taxes due to a reduction of property valuation on the common property from nearly $432,000 to some over $43,000 due to the Corporation’s status as a not-for-profit association.

The residents approved bylaws for the new era of Aladdin Villas, Inc. at their first meeting in 1989. On February 11, 1989, all aspects of management were transferred to the new corporate board. By the fall of 1989, 300 lots had been sold, leaving the remaining in the hands of a bank. Clearly more lots needed to be sold soon for the community to keep going. The bank had a sales office in the West Hall and Aladdin Villas residents themselves made many of the sales pitches. Those residents persevered and eventually succeeded in having all 543 lots in private ownership. The serious financial problems were behind the fledgling corporation and financial matters would remain on solid footing through today.

Those first years clearly demonstrated that serious and important work can be accomplished by volunteers, volunteers who not only work in the community, but enjoy all of the amenities, and by their efforts keep their association dues low—only $370 per year in 2014. Certainly, though, some construction and upkeep in the community requires the work of licensed workers such as plumbers and electricians, and the landscaping and upkeep of common grounds are maintained by a hired firm.

In the intervening years until today, many residents have donated precious days, weeks and months of their lives to the maintenance of Aladdin Villas, though perhaps few or none have worked quite as energetically as those early residents. Today, most of Aladdin’s residents volunteer in little ways or in big ways. Many residents very much enjoy their volunteer work as officers, as committee members, as kitchen workers, as woodworking shop monitors, as teachers of crafts and languages, as office workers, etc. It brings a sense of purpose and accomplishment to their senior years, as well as providing camaraderie. Others are less involved in volunteer work, some due to aging and health issues and others because they enjoy the privacy of individual or small group projects and recreation. All residents enjoy the many amenities and activities of Aladdin and the warmth of South Texas.

Lots continue to be available for sale as residents either require a more assisted living arrangement, or die as we all must, or occasionally simply wish to move out of the community.

Improvements have been made over the years. In 1997, a storage building for community property was constructed. In 2008, new restrooms went in at the West Hall, along with a storage room for janitorial supplies and an enlarged kitchen storage area. A beautifully renovated swimming pool opened in early 2013 and new Aladdin Villas identifying walls were constructed for the entrance to the community that spring. That year a new door security system for the common areas was installed, as well. A new free-standing 60’x40’ state-of-the-art heated and air-conditioned wood shop opened in 2014, entirely paid for by donations from residents. This left the previous wood shop space for an expanded stained glass shop. A number of less adventurous projects desired by the residents, such as kitchen renovation and replacement of signs in the common areas, continue as finances allow.

At some point in the development of the community, someone coined the phrase “Aladdin Villas—where everything is accomplished by volunteers.” It was true for the most part at the beginning and remains true today.