Friday, December 21, 2007

Ave Maria and the pizza man's unanswered prayers

Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino's Pizza, has been receiving a lot of attention for his ambitious -- and pious -- community-building project in Florida. One of my favorite writers at The New Yorker penned this piece last February about Monaghan's plans to build a Catholic seminary and city based on Catholic values, both bearing the name Ave Maria.

But, in another long piece, Portfolio reports that Ave Maria's in need of a miracle. (Cliche writing intentionally added.)
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 is coming into being at the dawn of the worst real estate recession since the early 1990s, in a place that could fairly be called the epicenter of the bust. According to one recent study, the Naples area is the spot in America most at risk for a steep drop in home prices. But the deeper problem may be a conflict between Monaghan and his partners over Ave Maria's identity. At this perilous juncture in the town's existence, they can't agree about how Catholic it should be. Barron Collier and Pulte, both of which are far more interested in profits than prophets, are downplaying the role of religion in the town's development, marketing Ave Maria as a place no more intrinsically Catholic than St. Louis or Corpus Christi, Texas.

But Monaghan and the believers who surround him say that the town's religious character is its great strength, not only spiritually but commercially. They worry that by pitching the development to home buyers as just another anodyne suburb, Barron Collier and Pulte risk alienating the very people most inclined to make Ave Maria their home. "I wonder sometimes whether they don't treat this as if it's the same as every other development they do," Monaghan says of his secular partners. "I think if they put a lot of money into marketing to the general population, they might be wasting a lot of it."

Early indications suggest he may be right.
Which raises the question of the day: Would you want to live in a town of not only homogeneous religious beliefs but also moral values?

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