Tom MonaghanBy Tim Ribar for USA TODAY WHAT CAN BE FOUND IN THE NEW TOWN
- Ave Maria, Fla., sits on 5,000 acres in the southwest part of the state. It will include 11,000 "dwelling units": condominiums and single-family and town homes. To date, 335 dwelling units are under contract.
- The town center features 1.2 million square feet of mixed-use space, including commercial retail, office space and condominiums.
- 140 students are enrolled in a private K-12 school opening in a few weeks. Public schools also are planned.
- The 104-foot-tall oratory is scheduled to be completed in time for Christmas Mass. It will seat 1,100. The master plan calls for the construction (not yet started) of a 55-foot crucifix, the largest in North America.
By Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY
AVE MARIA, Fla. Ten years ago, Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan had a vision to create a "fresh, faithful voice" in Catholic higher education. Now he has both a university and a brand-new town to put it in.
On Saturday, the town will open its doors to the public. Next week, Ave Maria University will move from its cramped quarters in Naples to a permanent campus here, which sits on what used to be about 1,000 acres of tomato plants.
Ave Maria has not been without controversy. The Florida American Civil Liberties Union has threatened to sue if the town bans birth control, as Monaghan suggested in a speech. Catholic educators say he could have found better ways to reach out than to create a town where single-family home prices range from $256,900 to $481,900.
Monaghan, 70, remains steadfast. "Everything I do I think I do for the right purposes," he says. "I only have to answer to my God."
The town and university will operate independently but the Catholic influence is hard to miss. Streets bear names like Assisi and Annunciation. The town center holds a cathedral-size chapel based on a design Monaghan sketched himself. Atop it is a 13-foot-high cross, the highest point in the town.
The seeds for this $400 million enterprise were sown in 1998, the year Monaghan sold his pizza business for $1 billion and founded Ave Maria College, a liberal arts school in Ypsilanti, Mich. (It closed this year.) By 2000, he had founded Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor,Mich.; it is set to relocate to Florida in 2009.
In 2002, real estate development company Barron Collier offered to donate 1,000 acres of southwestern Florida farmland for Monaghan's dream university. He partnered with the company to create a town to support it. He has committed more than $200 million to build the university and invested $100 million to develop the town. Profits from that investment will go to the university.
Monaghan dismisses questions about whether the town will tolerate non-Catholic views. But he created a stir last year when he was quoted as having said in a speech to a Catholic men's conference that pharmacies wouldn't be allowed to stock condoms or birth control pills and that cable TV would show no pornography.
Monaghan has since said he misspoke. Project manager Donald Schrotenboer says the town will obey all local ordinances, but officials "would prefer" that businesses sell only products consistent with a family-friendly environment.
That hasn't appeased the ACLU of Florida, which says it will continue to monitor the town. Monaghan's "comments on the record give us legitimate concerns about the community he's creating," says Executive Director Howard Simon. Although many religious groups, from the Amish to Hasidic Jews, have their own communities, "constitutional issues arise when the religious group wants to act as if it also has governmental authority."
The USA already is home to more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities. But Monaghan and his administrators say Ave Maria's campus will reflect a faithfulness to Catholic teachings that they do not see elsewhere. The campus will have single-sex dorms, for instance. And every residence hall will have a chapel.
"We make no apologies for seeking to uphold Catholic moral teachings," particularly when it comes to relations between men and women, Ave Maria University President Nicholas Healy says. "We would not approve of or facilitate something that is very common, I'm told, on college campuses today, hooking up and sleeping around, and binge drinking."
Such talk has not endeared Monaghan, who dropped out of college when his pizza business took off, to Catholic educators.
"This is his dream, fueled by his money and his vision. There are people who admire him and others who feel he ought to have more humility about it all," says Richard Yanikoski, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. "He comes across as, 'I know best how to educate Catholics at the college level.' "
Monaghan's relationship with the Diocese of Venice, whose boundaries include the town of Ave Maria, remains undefined. Campus priests can celebrate Mass in the oratory, but need permission from the bishop to perform sacraments.
"The bishop has spiritual and pastoral responsibility" for Catholics in the new town, as for any who move into the diocese, says diocese spokeswoman Adela Gonzales White.
Monaghan hopes that will change in time. Overall, he's content with where things stand. "If they buried me now, I'd be satisfied."
And Renee Beckner of Naples, who with husband Alan plans to open a jewelry store and build a home in Ave Maria, says she was impressed by the "vision God had given him."
"I don't see why there's such a fuss about having a community (where) the values are based on faith and family and religion," she says.
Contributing: The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla.