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Ave Maria keeps doing what its doing even through there is a weak economy


Ave Maria keeps doing what its doing even through there is a weak economy

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Ave Maria plows ahead despite weak economy

By LIAM DILLON (Contact) 8:09 p.m., Sunday, July 20, 2008


People line up for hot dogs along Annunciation Circle in front of the Oratory at Ave Maria in July 2007. The town is showing promise despite the nation’s troubled housing market.

Ambition has met reality in the year since Ave Maria had its official opening in eastern Collier County.

One of the boldest projects in the history of Southwest Florida — to build a 5,000-acre town with a 6,000-student university on former rural tomato fields — has had the misfortune of arriving amid a severe local economic downturn.

The result is a development functioning well below initial projections in home sales and new businesses, but producing strong numbers in this market, according to a local real estate expert.

The Collier County Property Appraiser’s Office has recorded 295 residential deeds in the town from when the first homeowner arrived in May 2007 through last week.

Those figures are 13 percent of what the town’s development order had predicted when passed in 2005.

But they’re good enough to be considered a success, said Shelton Weeks, director of Florida Gulf Coast University’s Lucas Institute for Real Estate Development and Finance.

“Given how bad things have been locally and nationally and what’s going on in the mortgage market, it’s impressive or at the least respectable,” Weeks said of the town’s sales.

Blake Gable, a vice president at town co-developer Barron Collier Cos., said town founders adjusted their plans as market conditions became clear.

“I think everyone involved in the project lowered their expectations to match the reality,” Gable said.

Home sales, he added, weren’t the primary concern in the first year.

“It really isn’t something that we’re spending a lot of time talking about,” he said. “We set out to establish a foundation for a town that’s going to be around for hundreds of years. When you plan out for 11,000 residences, you know it’s something that’s not going to happen overnight.”

The self-sufficiency that Ave Maria’s developers touted hasn’t happened overnight, either.

The first year has brought a staffed fire and emergency medical services facility, a popular coffee shop and an urgent care medical clinic.

It hasn’t brought a supermarket, second restaurant, gas station or bank.

In February, Publix announced formal plans to build a supermarket in the town. A company spokeswoman said the 28,000-square-foot store, which will have a pharmacy, is scheduled for completion in “early 2009.”

Gable said a Tropical Smoothie Cafe franchise will become the town’s second restaurant within the next two months.

Time frames on a gas station and bank opening are less clear.

A gas station and convenience store has broken ground, operated by Red Rabbit, a company based outside St. Petersburg. Franchise owners couldn’t be reached for comment.

Immokalee-based Florida Community Bank had originally hoped to move its headquarters and open a branch in Ave Maria last June. But state regulators have yet to give the bank approval to open its doors in town, according to Florida Community Bank President Stephen Price and officials with the state’s office of financial regulation.

Many residents moving into the town last summer called themselves “pioneers” and cited attraction to the town’s Catholic appeal — even as developers repeatedly emphasized it shouldn’t be considered a “Catholic town” — as reasons for coming to Ave Maria before certain amenities were in place.

That allure is the main reason why comparing the town’s development to others locally and around the state is difficult, said Weeks, the real estate professor.

The year’s biggest news in Ave Maria was the March dedication of its landmark 100-foot Catholic church, Ave Maria Oratory by Diocese of Venice Bishop Frank Dewane. Visitors and tourists have come from across the country to see it and the town up close.

“There’s this whole cultural thing there that’s really very different,” Weeks said. “The sample is of one.”

But those residents who have taken the plunge said they were hoping for more neighbors and more businesses more quickly.

Warren Mass, a 60-year-old writer for a conservative magazine, moved with his wife Martha, a retired federal government employee, to Ave Maria from the Florida Panhandle in late August.

Mass and his wife are Catholic and they’ve been pleased with the development. They’re waiting for more retirees in town.

“I keep telling my wife, ‘Your best friend hasn’t even moved in yet,’” Mass said.

After 11 months, they’ve decided Ave Maria is where they want to put down their roots.

“I plan to stay here my whole life,” Mass said.

Others are less sure.

Brian Aabel, 42, moved in mid-September with his wife, Marta, 39, and three kids. They came from Arizona where they lived in a development by Pulte Homes, also Ave Maria’s residential builder.

Aabel called his family “probably the only non-Catholics here.” He’s had trouble fitting in with the rest of the community.

“I’m accepted by some people, but others look the other way,” said Aabel, who runs a computer software company from home.

He was also hoping for more town amenities and options for family entertainment, especially in the summer months with Ave Maria University’s classes out and his children on vacation. He added the family was “weighing its options” on staying.

“It’s not up to expectations, but it’s not anybody’s fault,” he said. “The real estate market is bad.”
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Ave Maria keeps doing what its doing even through there is a weak economy