Dearborn Towers residents arrange their household items for a moving sale Friday. Developers bought the complex from Dearborn, Mich., last month and plan to remodel it as Island Way Towers. CHERIE DIEZ | Times

CLEARWATER

It’s the end of an era for one of the country’s most unusual retirement communities: a complex owned and populated by a city a thousand miles away.

Dearborn Towers has been home for 45 years to the residents of Dearborn, Mich., which bought the complex on Island Estates as a summer spot for snowbirds and blue-collar retirees.

But strapped by budget woes, the home to the global headquarters of Ford Motor Co. has now sold the complex, leaving tower residents scrambling to move.

"We all thought we’d be here forever," said Carol Makowski, 82, a Dearborn native who lived in the tower for a decade. "Forever didn’t last that long."

Pool-bottom blue and eight stories tall, the tower at 223 Island Way was bought for $1 million in 1967 under the leadership of Orville Hubbard, the "Dictator of Dearborn," who served as mayor for more than 30 years.

Opened only to seniors who lived in Dearborn for a decade, the tower nevertheless proved incredibly popular. Its eight floors were full for three decades, with some people waiting years to move in.

Its parking lot packed with Detroit muscle, its logo a Model T, the tower became an enclave of Dearborn expats. In 1994, the marching band of Dearborn’s Fordson High School paraded outside on their way to Walt Disney World.

The tower — with its two acres of waterfront, private fishing dock, marina, pool and community center — had its share of critics back home, who questioned the city’s spending on faraway refuges.

Dearborn residents began to see their point over the past five years, as budget woes intensified back home. Dearborn voters decided to sell the tower in 2007. It was listed in 2010.

Developers bought it last month for $6 million and plan to remodel it as a condominium complex called Island Way Towers. On the tower’s 88 doors came a notice that residents must leave by the end of the month.

Dearborn officials said it only made sense to sell: Between 2010 and 2011, the towers were a third empty and cost the city $900,000. They point to seniors’ homes within Dearborn limits, like Hubbard Manor, as alternatives for those moving back home.

But the tower’s residents are upset that they have a month to move their lives after what they believed was a city’s promise that they would never have to move again.

On Friday, its few lingering retirees hosted a moving sale between the pool and the vacant parking lot.

Sam Martin, 82, a widower who lived in the tower for 12 years, sipped a can of Bud Light and bemoaned the idea of packing. "Ain’t no place like this in the whole country," he said.

Helen Miller, 80, waited nearly a decade to move into the tower, but she said it was worth it: She has lived there for 24 years. Her first apartment, on the sixth floor, cost only $274 a month, and her late husband, a retired electrician, had his own workshop downstairs.

Her apartment, with sweeping views of Clearwater Harbor, is in shambles as her daughter lists her things for sale; she has a furnished place lined up on Dolphin Point. But though some remain bitter, she has no regrets.

"I never dreamed they would sell it," Miller said. "But I’m just happy I lived here."

Times staff photographer Cherie Diez contributed to this report. Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.

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