Ave Maria development's sales numbers far short of heavenly

NAPLES

A pair of gray-haired religious tourists, probably the 10th such couple that hour, snap photos in front of Ave Maria's barrel-vaulted Catholic church.

Richard Hailer looks on from across the street in Ave Maria's town center, which rises like a medieval European cathedral town from a former Florida tomato field.

Hailer is retired, a Bostonian who loves living in Ave Maria, an enclave of orthodox Catholicism anchored by a fledgling university.

But while Ave Maria remains a source of inspiration for pilgrims who come to gaze and pray at one of Florida's most impressive modern churches, its real estate sales are sluggishly earthbound.

Ave Maria's projected population of more than 20,000 stands at about 500. Pulte Homes, the community's builder, has slashed $100,000 from the prices on some models.

"In the beginning they had people lined up to buy here," Hailer said. "Then Pulte got sideswiped. It hit the fan. Growth's been okay but nothing like they anticipated."

The 5,000-acre town is a bold proposition, the religious vision of Domino's Pizza tycoon Tom Monaghan. Its gate off two-lane Oil Well Road between Naples and Immokalee stands 9 miles from the nearest suburban subdivision. It takes 20 minutes to reach Interstate 75 if you ignore the speed limit. It's so remote that conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh's radio show crackles with static on the AM dial.

In 2002, the Michigan-born Monaghan signed the deal to build Ave Maria with landowner Barron Collier Cos. Monaghan's focus remains on the 550-student university, soon to be joined by a law school. He has personally invested or donated hundreds of millions of dollars.

Little is left to chance in Ave Maria, a tribute to a man who kept a tight rein on his international pizza empire for 30 years.

Soft jazz oozes from speakers installed among the partly empty shopfronts in the oval-shaped city center called La Piazza.

If you're not a serious buyer, the Pulte sales staff is standoffish. It's several minutes before anyone responds to a visitor at the front desk, and the reception, once it comes, is cool.

"We've got to be careful. You never know if people are who they say they are," said a young male office receptionist in the sales center.

The reception is more gracious at the office of Ave Maria Development, overseer of the entire project. Asked about Monaghan's plans, staffer Kelly Guarascio said, "His museum's downstairs."

What unfolds to the visitor is a combination religious shrine and paean to the capitalist spirit.

In the back is a row of chairs from Tiger Stadium, home of the Detroit Tigers. Monaghan used to own the Major League Baseball franchise. Domino's Pizza memorabilia, including the trademark bag used to keep pizzas hot, hang on the wall.

A bust of the late Pope John Paul II smiles on photos of Monaghan shaking hands with the pope and Mother Teresa. A "celebrant's chair," in which the pope said Mass during a visit to Michigan, holds pride of place.

Monaghan's credo stares down from a display: "I believe my mission is to get as many people to heaven as possible."

The town's coffee shop is called the Bean. Despite pictures of the Virgin Mary on the wall, it helpfully serves bottled beer in a town without a grocery, at least until the 28,000-square-foot Publix opens one block off the town center this summer.

An English-style pub is opening soon. It's called the Queen Mary after England's 16th century Catholic monarch. The town has a newspaper, the Ave Herald.

• • •

Realtor Bob Campbell grew up Catholic in Bayonne, N.J., and has lived in Ave Maria about a year with his wife and child. The ex-Marine with an irreverent tongue still has an outsider's take on the town.

Real estate's dead, Campbell said. Buyers can almost name their price. The market collapse has left homes clustered in six neighborhoods, separated by quarter-mile stretches of dirt, grass and canal. As the town expands, the neighborhoods will grow to fill the void.

Campbell steers his Volvo SUV through the gates of Pulte's Del Webb golf course community. From inside a Del Webb model home, swaying grass and fronds frame the clubhouse in the distance.

"I call that the Serengeti view. It's incredible," Campbell said. "You try going into Naples you might as well add another $200,000 to this house."

Ave Maria reminds Campbell of boot camp — in the best sense of the term. Living there builds character and camaraderie, he said. As if proving his point, he lets slip a swear word and immediately chastises himself. He waves to a passing motorist negotiating the same traffic roundabout. It's Ave Maria University president Nick Healy.

Campbell said Ave Maria's conservatism isn't out of the mainstream for Naples, conceived as a staid South Florida alternative to the Sin City hype of Miami.

"This is Florida living with good old-fashioned Midwestern values," he said.

• • •

Three years after groundbreaking, Ave Maria is inching toward self-sufficiency. Aside from the Publix, a BP gas station and pizza parlor are nearing completion. It has a kidney dialysis center, a bike shop, a jewelry store and a gift boutique.

A concrete plant, built specifically to serve Ave Maria, thrums in the distance.

Project manager Blake Gable takes a long view of the town.

"We're just getting started. We've got a 15- to 20-year build-out plan,'' Gable said. "We're not immune from the downturn by any stretch. It's a tough time to open."

Young families are drawn to one Pulte subdivision called Emerson Park, built within walking distance of a Catholic grammar school in which students wear uniforms. Bicycles, most tipped on their sides where the kids dropped them, seem to inhabit every other lawn in Emerson Park. But Hailer, one of the first Ave Maria residents, said appearances are deceiving.

"Seems like every new person you see in my neighborhood is retired," Hailer said.

Pulte admits its focus is on selling Del Webb's brand for active adults over 55. The university is a selling point. The Del clientele is hot for adult education.

The Michigan-based builder is careful to distance itself from Monaghan's religious orthodoxy. All groups — and those with no religion at all — are welcome. Campbell lives next to a rabbi and a Baptist. Monaghan's not apt to interfere.

"We need to appeal to a diverse set of buyers. We can't appeal to one ethnic or religious group," Pulte division president Ryan Marshall said.

One hitch has been Monaghan's plan to cede the massive 1,100-seat church to the Diocese of Venice. A combination of modern and medieval, its interior steel-beam vaulting rises 104 feet. Its profile dominates the plain from miles away.

The Catholic bishop is reluctant to assume the upkeep, including the frightening air conditioning demands, of a church that still serves so few parishioners.

Hailer remembers when the church attracted 1,000 sightseers some days. If only a few more of them bought real estate. Over Hailer's shoulder, not far from the city center, the edge of the town looks out onto the flat nothingness of South Florida.

One way or another, Ave Maria stands apart.

James Thorner can be reached at jthorner@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3313.

Ave Maria development's sales numbers far short of heavenly 05/04/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 7, 2009 11:28pm]

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