Company. Barron Collier Cos. Industry. Real estate development Key. Ave Maria set the stage for future growth.
When she was a young college student in 2002, Cee Cee Marinelli remembers Sunday drives with her family past the tomato fields of eastern Collier County.
Her father, Paul Marinelli, was president and CEO of Barron Collier Cos., the giant agriculture and development firm managed by the heirs of the county's founder. “This is where that town is going,” Marinelli told his daughter as they drove down Oil Well Road.
That town would be Ave Maria, a partnership forged by Paul Marinelli for Barron Collier and Domino's Pizza Founder Tom Monaghan. But the new town would be more than 30 miles from Naples in a predominantly agricultural area, leading some to speculate that it would be decades before people would move out there.
Today, daughter Cee Cee Marinelli is director of development for Ave Maria, the best-selling residential community in Southwest Florida. With more than 200 home sales this year — the most of any master-planned community in either Lee or Collier counties — Ave Maria is approaching the 1,000-home-sale mark.
The town doesn't feel as empty as it once did. On a recent afternoon, the streets were full of children riding their bikes and people walking around the center of town. “It feels exactly like what he had envisioned,” Cee Cee Marinelli says.
Paul Marinelli died in 2008 at age 52 just as construction on Ave Maria was beginning in earnest and the recession hit. Together, Barron Collier and Monaghan invested more than $300 million to build the community, a phenomenal sum given the speculative nature of the project.
Marinelli's vision certainly wasn't clear to everyone, especially when the housing crash stalled sales. Even Marinelli's daughter was skeptical. “Okayyy, dad,” she remembers telling him when they took family drives out to the area before the dirt turned. “Not everybody could see it,” says the younger Marinelli.
The town endured some unwanted national publicity early in its life as sensational television shows focused on Monaghan's strict Catholic views. The university and its signature oratory building were among the first buildings to come out of the tomato fields. “It was a big leap of faith back then to go that far east of the interstate,” says David Cobb, regional director for the South Florida region of market tracker Metrostudy.
But the naysayers have been proved wrong. Better roads leading to Ave Maria, affordable homes, new industry and amenities built during the downturn sparked a home buying spree there in the last two years. “This is really the center of the county,” Cobb says.
The Catholic oratory, dedicated in 2008, was one of the first buildings built in the new town of Ave Maria. Since then, commercial buildings and more than 900 new homes have been built in the town in eastern Collier County.
Faith in the project
Marinelli's vision of the 4,000-acre project reflected the Collier family's interests decades hence, though ups and downs of the economy. “It was always a 20-year project,” says Cee Cee Marinelli.
She recently drove to Lakewood Ranch in Manatee County, drawing parallels to what Ave Maria might look like when it reaches 11,000 homes at build-out. “Ave wasn't designed on a whim,” says Marinelli, referring to the town by its first name — ah-vay— as everyone does now.
Cee Cee Marinelli says the company never stopped marketing the community, even during the downturn. Barron Collier sponsored trolley tours, published print advertisements in glossy lifestyle magazines and daily newspapers, and had a booth at art fairs on tony Fifth Avenue in Naples and Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. “You keep inviting them back,” she says. “You knew it was going to work.”
Despite its seemingly remote location, Ave Maria can draw from two markets: Naples and the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area. In fact, it takes about the same amount of time to get from Ave Maria to Naples as it does to Weston, the first exit in Broward County, by taking State Road 29 to Interstate 75. Homes at Ave Maria cost about 40% less than new homes in Naples or Fort Lauderdale, Cee Cee Marinelli says.
That's important because home prices on the coast have surged. Prices for new homes at Ave Maria start in the $190,000s, about half as much compared with the average existing single-family home price of $416,972 in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area in July.
One of the builders at Ave Maria, Coral Gables-based CC Homes, is well known on the east coast as a quality homebuilder. “The CC influence with significant following is a huge advantage because of the fact that Ave Maria has close proximity to the east coast, at a value price,” says Randy Thibaut, the CEO of Land Solutions, a land brokerage firm in Fort Myers.
To capture the retirement market, Pulte Group's age-restricted Del Webb neighborhood has attracted buyers. “As long as they can keep their pricing, they're going to continue to attract more and more people out there,” says Cobb.
Meanwhile, all the amenities needed for daily life are present. There's a Publix supermarket, a bank, doctors and even a Tropical Smoothie. When it's fully built out, there will be enough room for 1.7 million square feet of commercial space — enough to fill more than 29 football fields.
“This is the classic example of drive until you qualify community,” says Cobb. “CC homes is bullish enough on the community that they have purchased 2,000 lots. They believe the community is going to be a market leader.”
In addition to Ave Maria University, which now has nearly 1,100 students, the town has attracted employers such as medical manufacturer Arthrex, which employs 700 people there. The maker of arthroscopic surgical equipment opened a 193,000-square-foot facility at Ave Maria in 2013 and more buildings are under construction.
Anchor new growth
Ave Maria is the pioneering project that is opening the area to future growth and the widening of Immokalee Road from two to six lanes in 2008 paved the way eastward.
As the economy recovers and the labor force grows, more affordable areas east of I-75 will benefit. “The huge escalation in price in Naples have priced a lot of working families out of Naples,” says Thibaut of Land Solutions.
Existing communities along the Immokalee Road corridor have experienced a surge in buyers, too. “It's east of the interstate, but the reservoir of remaining land is all around Ave Maria and it is owned by Barron Collier Companies or Collier Enterprises,” Cobb says.
That's because it's become increasingly hard to find an existing home for less than $300,000 in Naples. According to the Naples Area Board of Realtors, the inventory of existing single-family homes priced below $300,000 has fallen 31% in July compared with the same month one year ago and there's only a two-month supply based on the current sales pace.
The numbers aren't lost on developers. For example, Collier Enterprises, another branch of the Collier family, has partnered with Canadian residential developer Minto Communities to build 4,000 homes and a 150,000-square-foot in the area between Naples and Ave Maria.
The Collier Enterprises-Minto project, formerly called Big Cypress but now referred to as Rural Lands West, will have enough room for 10,000 homes and 1.9 million square feet of commercial space on 4,000 acres, roughly the same size as Ave Maria. The first homes are scheduled to be built in 2018.
For her part, Cee Cee Marinelli says the growth is vindication of her father's vision more than a decade ago. “There's so much passion behind this project,” she says. “He would have been proud of the whole team.”