Ken Colen is a man on top of the world with a quiet demeanor, grateful heart, warrior spirit and a powerful vision for the future.
Although his reserved demeanor may not immediately suggest it, Ken Colen is a man of many passions. Chief among them is community-building. Of course that may not come as much of a surprise, considering his father, the late Sidney Colen, was the architect of many communities, including Ocala’s On Top of the World (OTOW), an innovative 55+ active adult retirement community which was created in 1975 and continues to grow and thrive under his son’s leadership as president of all operations.
We met at the arrestingly beautiful Sholom Park, the Colen family’s inspired and enduring gift to the residents of Marion County. The park is a nonprofit, privately owned, 44-acre botanical garden on Southwest 80th Avenue. The name pays homage to Colen’s great-grandfather, Sholom, though the word also means peace in Hebrew.
“When I was 12 years old, Dad painted a picture for me of his vision for a park, where people could find solitude and peace,” remembers Colen. “Through the years, this theme was always percolating in his mind and he talked to me many times about the concept. When he turned 80, he brought it up again and I said, ‘Dad, you’re not gettin’ any younger. Are you gonna get the plow in the ground with this or not?’”
That was all he needed to hear and the two set about finding a home for their park.
“We had actually looked at some other places,” he says. “But the fun thing about this park is that it has some oak habitat, some open range. It has a little bit of pine habitat. It has just many different areas, microclimates and habitats within one 44-acre parcel. So, it sort of self-selected.”
Sidney and Ken spent three years designing and constructing their own little haven, with noted horticulturist Steve Curl. It opened to the public in 2004 with over two miles of paved trails and more than 250 species of plants and trees.
“Dad’s vision for the park was a place where people could come and study the anatomy of peace. And that really isn’t how it worked out,” Colen reveals. “The park has become its own force. And I say that because people send us poetry they write here, paintings…photographs. It inspires people to something greater. And I told Dad, ‘You know, the park is meeting its mission.’ This was one of those deathbed discussions we had when he was really in decline. He was bemoaning. And I said, ‘No, Dad, you don’t understand. It works one person at a time. One person is inspired. They come away with a sense of peace. They carry that into the world, and they interact with others in a different way. The park has its own mission. You put it in motion, but the park is doing what the park wants to do. We just kind of keep it neat and moving along.”
At the heart of every family-owned business is the visionary and Sidney had big dreams where business was concerned. Little did he know that a stop in Florida on his way to parts unknown would bring him big dreams of a family as well.
“My father wanted to go to South America to make his fame and fortune,” Colen explains. “His parents had moved out of Ohio and were living in St. Pete, so he stopped to visit them on the way. Somewhere along the line, he was invited to a dance in Tampa,” he continues. “My mother was there. He met her and said, ‘That was it!’ He knew that was going to be his wife, forever. After that, he gave up ideas of going to South America. I think she said, ‘Forget about it.’”
He soon learned that he could build an even better empire right here in Central Florida with the support of his new bride.
“Dad was pretty much the entrepreneur, the mover and shaker, but Mother was kind of an anchor to him and helped him stay grounded,” Colen recalls. “He bounced ideas off her and she’d listen and maybe she wouldn’t answer right away. She’d think about it and carry the discussion further. She clearly was an influence, and together they were a great team.”
Sidney started building one house at a time, around 1946, in St. Petersburg and was doing some work around various developments in Pinellas County. He then began focusing on building communities and grew in esteem and influence through several successful projects, including Kenneth City (which he named for his son—he had a habit of naming his projects after his children), Clearview Oaks Condominiums and OTOW Clearwater.
“What was unique about On Top of the World was that it was based around recreation as a way of life,” Colen notes. “At the time, he built a million-dollar recreation center. People thought that he’d lost his mind.”
But he had, in fact, hit upon a winning formula and the community continues to flourish to this day. He was soon looking for new areas to develop and new challenges. Once again, he was surprised by where his journey would next take him.
“He had been looking all over the world,” Colen recalls. “He looked in Central America and South America. He even went to South Africa. He had looked at several large tracts in Florida, particularly one near Holopaw, south of Kissimmee. He was close to making a deal and, for whatever reason, it just blew up at the last minute. His broker called and said, ‘There’s this company, Norris Cattle Company, they’re big landowners. They’re a publicly traded company and they need to show some black ink on their books by year end. There’s almost 13,000 acres of land in Ocala.’”
To which Sidney replied, “Gee, I don’t think it’s big enough.”
“But, sure enough, they drove up in and met Mr. Ferguson,” Colen explains. “I think they were maybe five or 10 minutes driving around the property and Dad looked back at Mom. Mom nodded,” he continues with a chuckle. “And that was it.”
Although Ken had worked for his father since he was 14, starting out as a carpenter’s helper, he admits that he hadn’t planned to enter the family business.
“In college, I had a lot of classes in microbiology and chemistry. I enjoyed that,” Colen offers. “I thought, you know, I really would like to go into biochemistry and endocrinology, get a master’s and go through the Ph.D. program. I was thinking, I’d like to take some time off before I jump into a master’s program. Then my father called me,” he continues. “It was December 14th, and the night before my final, final exam. He said, ‘You know that land I’ve been looking for, for all these years. I think we found it. And we’re going to contract and we’re going to close on the 30th of December.’ I said, ‘Well Dad, that’s just great. I’m gonna take a little time, visit friends on the East Coast and make my way home, maybe in a couple of weeks.’ He said OK. Then I got to thinking about it and I pretty much drove straight from Rhode Island to Florida. I showed up and saw the property and just fell in love with it. It does that.”
Colen never did return to school, but instead chose to work side by side with his father. Ironically, Sidney had also admitted that he did not initially intend to enter the field. The son of a builder, himself, the Philadelphia native was headed off on adventures abroad when he made that fateful stop to see his own folks and met Ina, Ken’s mother.
“His father was a home builder. Not to the extent of doing large developments, but a home here, there,” Colen offers “And his grandfather was a carpenter. So, there is a family lineage of building.”
That family lineage had now united father and son in creating OTOW Ocala.
“He was about controlling every aspect of the development, from the landscaping to the construction, to the types of homes that would be built, to the marketing. That vision was about beauty and about giving people tremendous value for their homes,” Colen asserts. “We started building very affordable villas. They had a lot of street appeal, because every home had a porch and on every porch was a porch swing, a railing and some brick-back molding on top. It was a hometown feel. People responded beautifully to it.”
But the other aspect of the community Sidney was passionate about was that it be based around the arts.
“He wanted to build this community that had an emphasis on the arts,” explains Colen. “The genetics within the body of the community did come about and did express itself when we built The Circle Square Ranch Cultural Center with a 950-seat auditorium. We started bringing in national acts. We started expanding the community, nurturing our cultural arts programs and empowering our residents to cultivate their creativity.”
But one of the most engaging and enriching elements of the community was developed by Colen after he attended a conference in San Francisco that featured Marc Freedman, the author of the acclaimed book on aging, Prime Time.
“His premise was that seniors spend a lifetime building a competency in their industry, whatever it is. And for them just to retire and drop out of the workforce, it deprives younger people of so much knowledge and so much experience. His point was to keep seniors engaged in mentorships, programs where they can, first, perfect their own knowledge and continue to learn, but also to mentor others,” declares Colen. “I came away very inspired.”
He soon brought to life the program he was envisioning. Master the Possibilities Lifelong Learning Education Center boasts a highly credentialed faculty with more than 150 instructors, state-of-the-art facilities and an annual enrollment exceeding 25,000.
“You’re dealing with people who have mastered their trade, mastered their profession, are masters in life. So, I said we have endless possibilities…so Master the Possibilities. It’s not just a name, but also a theme. And the genius, I think, in Master the Possibilities, is the connections that it brings to people. I am convinced, being in the active adult community business for over 45 years, that the disease of old age is not old age. It’s isolation and loneliness,” he says with a sense of urgency. “On Top of the World offers a great antidote to that by keeping people engaged and Master the Possibilities is really the jewel in the crown.”
While Colen has certainly inherited his father’s desire to build communities, he may be even more deeply invested in growing community.
He rattles off a list of questions he already knows the answers to, “Build better communities, more civility, stronger communities, more sense of place? We certainly buy into that, because we were doing it.”
And he’s about to do it again, with an ambitious new project on the way. Calesa, an “active family” master-planned community with up to 5,000 homes, will feature a K-8 charter school, a joint worship center and a $10 million aquatic center, that will become home to recreational and competitive swimming. He took the name from a story of a Timucuan warrior, to honor the land.
“Calesa is an almost 1,900-acre development,” he explains. “The beauty of Calesa is that we’ve taken time to work and sculpt the land. One of the coolest things is the trail system we are creating, so you can get from point A to point B going under roads, going over roads, with very few surface crossings, to be able to move about the community. And we’re creating little mini parks and meditation gardens throughout. So, it’s just a lot of thought put into how we craft it and that’s kind of how I approach development work, is it’s really a sculptural work, a sculptural piece of planning.”
It is projected that sales for homes in the community will begin in late 2020 or early 2021.
Kind Hearts, Strong Minds
He’s also put a lot of thought into another aspect that was inspired by his mother.
“Through two other foundations, we’re doing a charter school, the Ina A. Colen Academy, named for my mother. She was a teacher and just a very, kind of a hands-on, inspirational teacher and she instilled that love of learning in her children,” he reveals with a smile. “And I think it’s a fitting tribute.”
She also has inspired the school’s innovative approach to learning.
“The key point behind the Ina A. Colen Academy is the emphasis on social, emotional learning and project-based learning,” Colen offers. “You get the basics, your reading, writing and arithmetic, and then you start to use it and apply it. And sometimes the children pick the program and sometimes the teacher inspires the program. So, everybody is engaged and, really, you don’t know what you know until you use it, or until you teach it. It’s a departure,” he admits. “It’s a public school, so we have to meet all the requirements, of course, but it gives us great flexibility in lesson structure.”
He also is focused on more than the academics, with an eye on the emotional well-being of the school’s future students.
“There is such an emotional aspect, now more than ever,” he urges. “You see children, how they can become isolated and bullied. Our philosophy is kindness. Kind hearts, strong minds. We want to cultivate that. We embrace diversity at all levels. We’re integrating children with special needs into our programs–mainstreaming. This is our mission; this is our focus.”
Keeping the Faith
Colen is also planning another innovative, and decidedly modern, approach to the community’s houses of worship.
“I’m a member of Temple Beth Shalom, a Jewish reform congregation in Ocala, and they’re needing to move out of where they are and the First Congregational United Church of Christ wanted a site and we got to talking,” Colen explains. “On NPR there was a story about a joint worship center, I think it was in Omaha, and I said, you know what, why not. You know if you think about it, churches, or houses of worship, are largely underutilized buildings. You meet for a few hours a few days a week. Can we create a space that can accommodate both? The minister and the rabbi liked each other a lot, so we said why not? Let’s go forward with this.”
In the Swim
The planned state-of-the-art aquatic center, Florida Aquatic Sports Training Center (FAST), which is being built through Circle Square Foundation Aquatics, Inc., will serve more than just the Calesa community when it opens in 2020. In fact, a crisis actually led to Colen’s conceiving the center as part of the solution and led to him shoring up the College of Central Florida’s Newton A. Perry Aquatic Center, which was scheduled to close in December of 2019. This would have left Ocala Aquatics, high school swim teams and the Ocala Marlins swim teams without a home. It is also used for swimming lessons and first responder training.
“I grew up in, around pools and in aquatics,” Colen explains. “I thought, there’s got to be something we could do. So, we reached out to the college and to Ocala Aquatics and it turns out there was something we could do— we can build an aquatic center,” he continues. “But it’s not just an aquatic center, it’s going to be a world-class training facility. We’re going to have two 50-meter pools. The one indoor pool is 10 lanes, 3 meters deep, with the special wave baffling technology on the drains to control turbulence, which will help yield faster times. So, records will be set in this pool. Outside the facility there will be a 25-yard warm-up pool under cover and probably a recreational pool.”
Colen explains that the foundation stepped up because of its belief that Marion County needs a strong aquatics program. Colen says the hope is to bring statewide swimming events to the Ocala area that will boost the economy. However, since the new center will not be completed until 2022, Colen has committed to lease the Newton A. Perry Aquatic Center until the new complex is built.
“We struck an agreement where the foundation would pay them (CF), it’s divided monthly, basically amounts to $100,000 a year for the program,” Colen reveals. “It gave the school some needed infusion and kept the pool open for those who need it.”
OTOW has an estimated $100 million annual impact on the economy of Ocala/Marion County and Calesa has the potential to match or exceed that, especially given the promise of the aquatic center.
“We’re crafting FAST in such a way that it will be an economic driver in Marion County. When you think about hosting these large swim meets, you get thousands of people coming in. They eat in restaurants, there’s lodging, it’s a high multiple,” Colen asserts. “It’s an economic driver and we are looking forward to getting to the operational phase.”
President and CEO of the Ocala/Marion Chamber & Economic Partnership (CEP) Kevin Sheilley, who is especially mindful of such economic drivers, has nothing but praise for Colen’s vision and leadership.
“Ken Colen is one of my favorites leaders,” Sheilley says. “His quiet, focused approach provides invaluable insight and often belies his incredible vision. I know that when Ken moves forward on a project it is going to be well thought-out with significant detail and will be a complete success.”
Philanthropy is something that Colen practices quietly and carefully, but his generosity is well known throughout our community.
“My family has always subscribed that if you’re in a position where you can do good and help people, then help people. But it’s difficult to find organizations that act responsibly, that don’t go crazy with their overhead, pay ridiculous salaries and get bloated and keep it focused on their mission,” Colen admits. “I will tell you that I think Interfaith Emergency Services is just a top-notch organization. I also think that Hospice of Marion County is exemplary of those principles.”
“Ken Colen is our silent hero for Interfaith. He is one of the most generous and compassionate leaders in our community,” says Karla Grimsley, CEO of Interfaith Emergency Services. “We can always count on him because he genuinely cares about the people in this community. He makes it possible for us to change lives.”
With generosity often comes gratitude, which is the key principle Colen lives by and the best advice he says he can give others.
“Be grateful,” he offers. “Feeling gratitude for whatever comes into your life, whether it’s comfortable or uncomfortable. It’s all part of the experience. Just feeling gratitude for whatever comes is sort of my guiding mantra.”
In 1997, during an interview with the Tampa Bay Business Journal, Sidney leaned in and whispered to the writer that he really didn’t want to be profiled. He said it didn’t speak to his purpose. “That’s what it’s all about,” he offered at the time. “We have to seek out the purpose.” His purpose, as he explained it, was to provide “homes for retired people, homes where those people will be happy, where they will interact with their neighbors, where they won’t feel isolated or alone.”
At the conclusion of our interview, Ken Colen confides that he doesn’t like to talk about himself and wasn’t really sure he was going to initially say yes to doing this interview. When I ask what he wants his legacy to be, he smiles and replies, “I want my legacy to be happy, intelligent, well-adjusted children, who are successful in life,” he asserts. “Who have graduated from Ina A. Colen Academy and have a good grounding that carries them on through adulthood and beyond.”
While they are different men, there is an undeniable through line between father and son. Two men devoted to diverse communities, hesitant to discuss it but driven to nurture it…movers, innovators and passionate champions dedicated to creating a place to call home for countless generations.