Thursday, November 5, 2015 / by Michael Donovan
AVE MARIA — For the first time since it opened in 2007, the sales mojo is working at the RomanCatholic university town.
Ave Maria, conceived by Barron Collier Companiesand Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, is leading Southwest Florida with 253 homes closed in 2015, according to the Collier Building Association, which also gave it a “Community of the Year" award.
And with new buyers, its identity is changing. Less like the Truman Show. More like Main Street, with Gino's Trattoria pizza coming instead of Domino’s. The charm: homes that look custom at off-rack prices.
Diane Ibarria, senior vice president of CC Homes, was jubilant last Monday after her office sold its seventh home in as many days: “one for every day of the week.”
“It’s changed a lot,” Ibarra said at her sales office, where the Caves of Miami Gardens were choosing tiles for their new four-bedroom, three bath Keswick model in — base price shy of $430,000.
“When we opened, the majority of our buyers were very conservative Catholics with nine or 10 kids,” Ibarria said. “Now I have several gay couples and two pastors, both non-Catholic.”
“The house we bought would cost $700,000 on the east coast, and that’s in Weston, an hour from Miami,” Evelyn Cave explained why she and her family are relocating.
With downtown shops and a Catholic church and university at its heart, Ave Maria's 4,000 acres are sprouting neighborhoods for every age and stage, wihose top home prices stop where Naples' starts.Affordable has become its Holy Grail.
The Miami factor
Randy Thibaut, CEO of Fort Myers-based Land Solutions, credits Ave Maria with starting AN/THE the Florida east-to-west coast commuting trend.
“They’re perfectly positioned to take advantage of what’s happening in Naples,” Thibaut said. “They have years’ worth of land and product available to serve the $200,000 to $400,000 first-time buyer.”
The newest of three builders, CC Homes won national recognition for Monterra, an affordable Cooper City community that built out in 2012. Now pent-up demand for their product is luring Broward and Miami-Dade buyers west.
The Rev. Derrick Hughes recently moved to Maple Ridge NEIGHBORHOOD IN AVE MARIA and commutes to Fort Lauderdale, where he preaches at First Baptist CHURCH OF? Piney Grove, a historic, mostly African-American congregation.
“The travel back and forth is worth it,” said Hughes, whose five-bedroom, 4.5-bath model starts at $397,990. “Our home in other places would cost a million dollars. When Ave Maria becomes a full community, the property values will make us look like geniuses for coming here.”
Hughes sees a big market for Ave Maria among South Floridians who’ve risen to the middle class and have the resources for a better life.
“With that comes the desire to live in a nice neighborhood,” he said. “It comes down not to race but to people of like minds who take care of their property and keep the environment nice and safe.”
With cheap land and the deep discounts of a volume builder, CC Homes fulfills their aspirations, making high-end touches like 12-foot ceilings and granite counters standard. Buyers can even qualify for no-money-down USDA loans because of the rural location.
“We find many of our customers have no savings. They tapped out to get through the tough times.” Ibarria said. “A salary as low as $45,000 a year can qualify with good credit and no debt.”
Asked if he would like to plant a church at Ave Maria, Hughes said, “Yes, it would be wonderful to have a multi-ethnic site here.
He laughed. “The irony is, I used to be Catholic. I attended Catholic schools and was even an altar boy.”
Pioneers welcome new neighbors
Ed Rivera only has to cross the street from his Edward Jones office to attend noon mass at Ave Maria Oratory. He and his wife knew they wanted to move to Ave Maria even before it opened, “to raise our children correctly in an incorrect world.”
But “Ave Maria is not a religious town,” the financial adviser insists. “My neighbors are Lutherans, Baptists and atheists. You don’t have to be religious to want to live in a good place.”
Dan Dix moved to the Emerson Park neighborhood for the same reason, to raise his children in a community of shared values. Even with Ave’s good schools, he and his wife home-school five daughters, and have friends who are home-schooling 12 children or more.
Now Dix’s Pulte-built neighborhood is almost sold out, and a second community calledAvalon Park will soon offer models “very close to the town center,” some with lofts, said Josh Graeve, vice president of sales.
“In the beginning, everyone came here for the Catholic community, because we wanted it to be central to daily life,” said Dix. “Now people are moving here just for inexpensive housing. Many are Latinos from Miami, and it’s kind of nice, because most are culturally Catholic.”
Business better but not robust
Dix not only lived in Ave Maria through the bad times, he also bought The Bean and The Pub and Grill, town center businesses he’s since sold. Both tanked during the recession.
When Chris Heitmann and his partners bought them from Dix, the same faces came in day after day. Now “business has been great,” Heitmann said. “The year-over-year sales and customers have both been growing,”
Dix is doing well, too, managing the town’s Braden Clinic, which came in after two other medical offices failed. “The timing couldn’t have been better,” he said.
Less so for Tropical Smoothie Cafe, the only one of the original downtown lessees remaining.
“Summer was really, really bad,” said owner Phong Ho, who’s expected to open a newAsian fusion restaurant soon. “We’re seeing better results, but we’re not where we should be.”
Pho, 34, moved to Ave Maria from Naples with his parents, who helped him and his brothers buy their own homes. While the senior Hos live in Del Webb Naples, the town’s active adult community, Ho, who used to work for Pulte, bought into the builder’s Hampton Village.
“To be honest, the life and blood of this town is still the people who come and visit,” he said. “I would say over 65 percent of our business comes in between January and May.”
Still a long road
For now, Ave Maria has the east Naples market boom cornered, but it will face competition soon as three nearby communities come online, including Collier Enterprise’s Rural Lands West project.
Thanks to the founders’ deep pockets, it may out-amenitize them, offering everything from its own mini-Publix and spectacular water park to free university classes for Del Webb Naples retirees.
But the perks come at a price: the founders’ control.
“You might have people wanting extended hours for the water park, extending a road, or finishing it faster,” said James Zagata, a military retiree who lives on the golf course’s ninth hole and divides his time between his Del Webb Naples and Colorado Springs homes.
For instance, the water park with its shimmering pool has been closed weekdays to lower operating costs. As the largest landowner, it’s the developer’s call.
Religious prohibitions continue to keep a hospital or pharmacy at arm's length; 20-plus miles to NCH Downtown Naples Hospital.
Time will also test the town’s conservatism. CC Homes alone has 2,000 lots to sell, a 10-year prospect at its current rate. Ave Maria will only become more diverse as it grows.
But for now, “It’s almost like Ave Maria is a separate oasis,” Rev. Hughes said. “It makes me feel safe, warm and welcome.”
Ave Maria Quick Facts:
Land area: 4,000 acres
Amenities:18-hole golf course, parks and nature trails, commerce/industrial park, downtown retail and restaurants, Publix, university and k-12 school, organic farm.
Current/potential # homes: 1,000/11,000
Builders: CC Homes, Pulte, Del Web Naples
Housing communities and prices
Emerson Park, family-oriented,from $181,990 for a 1,570 sqf home
Hampton Village: traditional single-family,from $236,990 for a 1,911 home
Coquina at Maple Ridge, town-home style from $201,990
Maple Ridge: more space and luxury features, from $258,990 for a 2,569 home
Maple Ridge Reserve, estate homes with more land, from $390,990 for a 4,269 home
Del Webb, active adults 55 , from $198,490 for a 1,289 sqf home
HOA fees from $89/mp. vary by neighborhood. Master association fee: $111/ quarter.