“Ave Maria,” Tom Monaghan and the Housing Bust

It’™s land speculation on a huge scale that Tom Monaghan is doing in Southwest Florida, and also religious speculation, hoping that conservative catholics will want to relocate to his little utopian community. It’™s not going so well.

Commentary By: Steven Reynolds

I was first exposed to both the notion of Florida land speculation and to Tom Monaghan back in the early 1980′™s when I was a student at Eastern Michigan University. Ypsilanti is where Monaghan built the first store in his Domino’™s Pizza empire, eventually selling the chain for about a billion dollars. The corporate headquarters is a Frank Lloyd Wright complex near the border of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. I remember thinking at the time that a CEO’™s interest in a nicely designed complex was a good thing, but that Frank Lloyd Wright was very much the day before yesterday. I also remember that Tom Monaghan was an extreme right-wing Catholic who raised millions of dollars for anti-abortion crusaders, and I remember thinking it’™s folks like him who give the whack jobs the courage to wreak the havoc of clinic bombings and murders ‘” but that’™s another article, I suppose.

At the time in a literature class my professor also has us read Frank Conroy’™s ‘œStop-Time,’ a memoir about a growing up in Florida in a subdivision that had been abandoned during a housing bust a while back, a phenomenon Florida has experienced many times over. Well, Florida is experiencing a lhousing bust now, and Tom Monaghan’™s project, in concert with the developer Barron Collier and Pulte homes, is in the Naples area, one of the worst areas hit by the housing bust we’™re currently experiencing.

I like the way the article in the Decomber 2007 issue of Conde Nast’™s Portfolio begins concerning the future of Monaghan’™s planned community and University, Ave Maria. Here’™s a little bit from the article by Dan Winters:

he soil of southwest Florida is loose and sandy, and it absorbs rich men’™s fortunes as readily as the summer rains. Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’™s Pizza, has poured at least $285 million into a stretch of rural land about 45 minutes from downtown Naples where he is building a new town and university, both named Ave Maria, which are designed to exemplify his conservative Catholic worldview. What has Monaghan’™s investment brought him in return? A picturesque vaulted church and a copper-roofed campus (see slideshow) for his 600-student school, which espouses an orthodox strain of his faith; attacks by civil libertarians, who accuse him of aspiring to create a veritable papal state at the edge of the Everglades; and so far, after years of publicity and months of intense marketing, just 73 completed home sales’”a fraction of the 600 he expected by the end of the year.

Monaghan and his partners’”the Barron Collier Co., a major Florida real estate firm, and Pulte Homes, the country’™s third-largest residential builder’”say it’™s too early to judge the viability of the project, which, after all, is still in its infancy. But the circumstances of Ave Maria’™s birth could not be more challenging. It was conceived in 2001, at the onset of the real estate boom, during which the median home price in Naples would double in just five years. The developers were originally hoping to construct 1,000 houses a year at Ave Maria, reaching a goal of 11,000 over the next decade, while also creating parks, shops, restaurants, and 500,000 square feet of office space. That’™s not going to happen, at least not at the pace the developers had hoped, for reasons that are both symbolic of wider market conditions and peculiar to the unique’”and controversial’”nature of Monaghan’™s project.

Ave Maria looks a bit ‘œmisconceived,’ if not ‘œill-conceived,’ in this real estate climate, but what do I know? Well, I do know a bit about Florida real estate, having lived there when I first started writing for ASZ lo those many years ago. I’™ve seen the skeletons of land speculation lying down roads with encroaching sea grapes and palms, decaying houses half-built, abandoned slabs bleached in the Florida sun. Such aborted tracts in the swamps of the interior of Florida just might be the state’™s biggest crop. But this isn’™t about Florida-bashing. It’™s about Monaghan, a man who has by all accounts been a darned good businessman, until he let his faith get in the way.

I should also note that there’™s a lot of other articles critical of Tom Monaghan’™s vision of an insular and conservative catholic community on the border of the Everglades. Bill Berkowitz writes about Monaghan and the fear that civil rights in Ave Maria will not conform to those in our society as a whole. Berkowitz also calls Ave Maria ‘œMonaghan’™s Big Box Church’ in an article in 2005. Yeah, critiques of Monaghan’™s ‘œvision’ have been around for a while (here and here and here, for instance), and most of them speculate on the mix of business and religion it represents. For instance, the Conde Nast article tries to figure out whether Pulte and Barron Collier, legends in powerhouses in hombuilding and Florida land speculation respectively, are working at cross-purposes with Monaghan with their marketing for the town of Ave Maria. Sure, the university is already there, but it appears Monaghan has sunk a great deal into a conservative catholic version of utopia there, and the Barron Collier/Pulte marketing of the community on billboards throughout Southwest Florida are not mentioning Monaghan’™s vision except by the inclusion of the Ave Maria name. Will people of other faiths who move there be comfortable?

I’™m not an expert on whether the Barron Collier company can pull off a community with such a narrow cultural appeal to the market of homebuyers that has dramatically shrunk in Southwest Florida, but I’™m suspecting they’™re going to have big troubles. These people are going to need jobs, after all, and Southwest Florida’™s industries are citrus and tourism and retirement. The citrus workers likely can’™t afford homes in Ave Maria, and the town itself is far from the beach, the major tourist attraction. But they surely aren’™t marketing this to retired catholics are they? And what of the retired Baptists and Methodists, not to speak of athiests, who might want their little piece of the consecrated swamp? Yeah, I’™m thinking this place is a long, long way from making money, if it ever does. Indeed, I’™m wondering if Ave Maria, the town and the university, might just be a bunch of abandoned slabs and shells of buildings in ten years, a ghost town with a monstrously large cathedral.

I’™m also a little curious. The articles here say that Tom Monaghan wants to market to conservative catholics, people who will feel comfortable in the community. But isn’™t that against the Fair Housing Act? I sure know when I visited a Pulte Home community recently any question that came near asking about the ‘œcharacter’ of the community was met with silence by the realtor. Pulte’™s folks here in Pennsylvania aren’™t about to be caught violating the Fair Housing Act. And, yes, religion is covered under the Fair Housing Act. I envision fines if Monaghan gets his way in his dispute over marketing with his partners Barron Collier and Pulte. That’™ll put a dent in his pocket above and beyond the huindreds of millions of dollars he’™s already sunk into this community which might very well fail miserably.

Hey, at least he’™s not giving all that money to political candidates. Though I’™m pretty sure Tom Monaghan and Rick Santorum are tight. Whack jobs both.

Monday, March 31st, 2008 by Richard Blair |

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