The start of Ave Maria was a real ‘Field of Dreams’ moment. Barron Collier built it and now residents — and businesses — are coming.
Barron Collier Cos. COO Brian Goguen, recently speaking before a crowd of Fort Myers-Naples area commercial real estate brokers and investors, referenced a classic baseball movie to describe the company’s strategy when it built the commercial town center before building any homes at Ave Maria, the 4,000-acre town under development 19 miles east of Interstate 75 in Collier County.
”It was total ‘Field of Dreams,’” said Goguen. “If you build it you hope they will come.”
Like Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella character in the movie Goguen referenced, Ave Maria was founded on faith — on a couple of levels. The project would serve as home to Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan’s Catholic-based Ave Maria University, for one. It was also built on the faith that the promise of residential and associated commercial development in a part of Florida unfamiliar to most would meet with success.
That faith has come to fruition, and the project, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary last year, has sold 2,000 homes and leased one-third of its commercial space, is now ready for its next growth phase. Officials hope that will come, partially, with the services of an international commercial real estate services and investment firm, so it can really swing for the fences.
But this kind of success wasn't a given back in 2002, when planning began for the project, or 2007, when the first class of students enrolled in the university and the project booked its first home sales.
'It was total ‘Field of Dreams.' If you build it you hope they will come.' Brian Goguen, Barron Collier Cos.
"We couldn’t predict we were going to enter into one of the greatest recessions in our lifetimes," says Barron Collier Senior Vice President David Genson, who is also its director of development. "There were years we were selling less than 50 homes a year, and that was a struggle. In 2012, it started to pick up and has been growing ever since.”
The development is now growing at a rate of some 300 home sales per year with a goal, Goguen says, of 500 per year on the way to a total of more than 9,000. Along with it has come commercial development, providing the employment base and services a town requires. The 1.8 million square feet of commercial space includes a 400,000-square-foot Arthrex plant and another 200,000 square feet of office, restaurant and retail.
With nearly one-fourth of the planned homes occupied, Goguen, who talked up the project at a recent Real Estate Investment Society symposium at Florida Gulf Coast University, says the company is accelerating its marketing efforts to draw more commercial interest to the area. To do that, it recently engaged CBRE to get the word out that Ave Maria, with its anticipated built-out population of more than 22,000, with another 1,200 when the university is in session, can handle more development.
“We looked at 2,500 homes as the critical mass to support services of a town, and we're really close to that,” says Genson. “We will be at that in the next two years. Businesses are doing well just from the residents themselves, but we also draw from around the area to shop at our Publix and use our services.”
Opening in 2009, Publix was among the earliest commercial tenants. The grocer was so important to the early stages of the project that Barron Collier subsidized the store for almost a decade.
“It was critical for us to have them out there,” says Goguen. “Getting Arthrex there was critical for the business park and the job base. There were things we did to seed business development like getting a gas station out there, but things are now really starting to grow.”
To encourage growth in services, Barron Collier also offered discounted rent to incentivize Ave Maria residents to open their own businesses in the town center, which Vice President of Commercial Real Estate Cee Cee Marinelli says comprises 95% of the available services.
Those tenants will soon have company, with CBRE on the job. “We are on the verge of getting some national retailers,” says Goguen. “As we continue growing we will have more national restaurant chains."
That success, in turn, officials hope, will attract more tenants. “The retailers are becoming more confident in the growth and they are interested in getting in on the ground floor, recognizing it might be a year or two before the demographics might typically be there," says Marinelli. "But they are anxious to get in before the opportunity doesn't exist.”