I’m returning from a lecture at Ave Maria University in Florida, my first exposure to this extraordinary entrepreneurial venture. The University is just the beginning. This is an entire, full-service town, privately conceived and built.
The idea was hatch in 2002 by Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza. The notion was to create a new town with a university and Catholic Church at the very center, but surrounded by real life as expressed in the commercial sector, something like the model you find in innumerable European cities that combine religious attachment with progressive hustle bustle that you find only within a free-enterprise framework.
Of course in the European model, you have organic development of the structure, plus many centuries for development. For a new town outside of Naples, Florida, the attempt to recreate this sense of community centered on faith required something unknown to European cities: a private form of central planning with development compressed into a few years.
The vision might have foundered on this flaw alone (vibrant towns resist planning but instead depend on spontaneous order) but Monaghan had experience in the world of free enterprise and correctly saw that in opening this town, he was not acting as a central planner so much as an entrepreneur or real estate developer. It was a risk he was ready to bear. That meant marketing and the creation of a friendly environment for business to thrive.
It was and is a brilliant plan. The idea was to create a huge community with a university and high school and grade school with gorgeous residential areas. Families would move there. Their kids would go to school. Students would would attend the university. Businesses would be drawn by an abundance of labor, both earnest and low priced, and also the close proximity of a customer base. Business owners and parents would move to the community to live amidst a thriving religious culture in which the Church was the town center. It would all work provided the engine of private enterprise was there to combine all these efforts into a beautiful and orderly town. This is a grand and inspiring vision.
And yet, the contemporary story of Ave Maria, Florida, is told in the sign you see driving in: “Established 2007.” I do not know the details of what has happened to home prices but I do know that the wonderful vision was unveiled at the height of the real estate and economic boom. I don’t know what happened to the price of homes but it can’t be good from the point of view of owners.
I do know that something like 1/4 or fewer of the homes that people expected to sell have in fact sold. The bust of 2008 created a disaster of immobility nationwide, thus hobbling the possibilities of growth for many entrepreneurial. People can’t move anywhere, must less to Florida. People are stuck because houses sell for far less than they once did, saddling people with catastrophic financial losses and eliminating even the option of looking at a place like Ave Maria as a possible relocation spot.
Had this entire venture been put in place 10 years earlier, Ave Maria, Florida, would today be a beacon to the world of what private enterprise can do, not just for worldly things but also for communities of faith. It might have shown how every sector of society is capable of opening a private town with a cultural atmosphere supportive of a particular interest. Whether it is Orthodox Judaism, Baptist snake handlers, or a nudist colony, a free society permits and encourages this kind of privately supported community formation. A thousand flowers can bloom.
In so many ways, Ave Maria, Florida, is an inspiration. The setback is a consequence of macroeconomic trends, a victim of the central bank and Greenspan and the business cycle these create. I like to think that Ave can stick it out until the bust ends. The dream of the founders can in fact be a reality – the only problem is that the wickedness of the boom-bust cycle (yes, there is reason to fear it) has delayed it. The bust has tested this vision just as it has tested everything and everybody.