Ave Maria

Then to Now of A Big Kind of Small Town

Erica Fish, Ave Maria Development

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A Big Kind of Small Town. When pondering such a title, many things come to mind, but those who live here can all agree it is a place plucked from the past representing the fineness of how communities used to be. Laid back folks with everybody knowing almost everybody, kids bike racing down the street to the local ice cream shop and playing till the streetlights turn on to packed cookouts with neighbors and families reminiscing on the front porch while enjoying the grandkids running around. That is the beauty of Ave Maria… Simplicity and wholesomeness. The hidden gem of Southwest Florida.

To understand how Ave Maria, FL came to be, the clock needs to be rewound to 2002 when the intersection of two remarkable visions created a groundbreaking opportunity where the approach to education and land planning catered to one of the fastest growing areas in Collier County.  

When Domino’s Pizza Founder, Tom Monaghan and Barron Collier Companies’ former CEO, Paul Marinelli joined heads in the creation of Ave Maria, their unique approach was to develop a community where you could learn, live and enjoy all the intrinsic benefits experienced in one place.  

When the two formed a partnership with Pulte Homes as the town’s main homebuilder, the vision turned into action. It was not until the spring of 2006 when the first shovel of dirt was turned marking the beginning of the town’s history.

To document the beginning of a new community in eastern Collier, Naples Transportation and Tours’ Joe Marinelli was requested to bring out the first news reporters to cover the announcement and groundbreaking.

Aerial captures initial construction phase of Ave Maria Town Center

Aerial captures the initial construction phase of Ave Maria’s Town Center and church, 2006. Photo courtesy: Paul Marinelli

“For three miles I drove this group through cattle fields, orange groves, tomato fields and sod farms and I kept thinking to myself, where even is this town? and the only thing there was a stack of large steel, which we would later learn were materials for the church.”

After this first trip out, Ave Maria Development requested tours so people could see the progress of construction phases on a weekly basis. “Every Saturday and Sunday we would tour the property, showing people what was coming and this dream that would soon come to be,” Joe Marinelli said.

Now 18 seasons in conducting trolley tours at Ave Maria, Mr. Marinelli always begins his tours by sharing the history of the town ranging from the first families who moved to the community, the university and its academic accomplishments to pointing out the original oaks planted in town which now giant the newest homes’ saplings.

Joe Marinelli driving trolley for tour

Joe Marinelli waves before his next trolley tour departure, excited to share recent news about the town, 2022.

“I’ve been studying Ave Maria history since my first day being introduced to the town. You think I could graduate with an honorary doctorate from the university?” He laughs saying. “I’ve been studying out here for 18 years and continue remaining fascinated by this town and the people that have created a diverse and relevant community.” 

Looking back, Mr. Marinelli thought the tours would’ve lasted just one season – he thought there was no reason to return to Ave Maria back then, but after witnessing the progression of the largest construction project being built in the United States, all of which was completed within a year, sparked his curiosity. “During the initial phases of construction, more than $1 million a day was spent, with as many as 1,500 workers present each day. That’s just unheard of,” Mr. Marinelli said.

One individual who has been around since day one of Ave Maria’s beginning developmental stages is Barron Collier Companies CFO Brian Goguen, who initially took up all the financial responsibilities from negotiations and issuing all the financing of the infrastructure projects to being a board member of the Ave Maria Stewardship Community District. “It began in 2004 when it was just a small group of us financing and planning this project, and in order to create the town of Ave Maria, we had to establish a district. Setting up a stewardship district enabled us to build core structures of the project, like the La Piazza.” Goguen explained not many places have stewardship districts which in turn, helped catalyze the building of the town.

“We owe great credit to Pulte for partnering with us by building traditional homes and awakening what was once a field of dreams into a full-blown reality,” said Goguen. “Activity breeds activity.”

And to think what was once endless ranches, crops and farmland turned into a town featuring commercial, medical and service businesses surrounded by homes, amenities and several schools providing residents and passerbys all the conveniences a mere walk away. 

“During the town’s initial design process, commercial was at the forefront because you can’t begin a concept without giving it a pulse,” said Cee Cee Marinelli, vice president of commercial real estate for town developer, Barron Collier Companies. “Commercial was needed to provide necessary conveniences [a grocery store, dining and shopping options, and health resources] for residents and visitors, and the building of the Town Center gave Ave Maria that sought for activation.” 

Aerial photo of Ave Maria Town Center, 2021

Ave Maria’s bustling Town Center stands tall among its growing communities, 2021.

Ms. Marinelli shared certain elements of Ave Maria has made it a winner for many – these elements include easy connection points among neighbors like parks, a bustling Town Center and recreational amenities all purposefully designed to spark that in-person connection among others. “Kids come together, then families come together and they all form relationships. Social components create connections for people which was a primary goal made by the founders of the town. Ms. Marinelli shared the value and quality of life people seek these days aligns with the small-town charm and vision first proposed by her father.

“This town is gravitating because it was designed to house all the staple conveniences, and when looking ahead, we’re on the edge of major commercial growth,” she said. Looking ahead defined Ave Maria’s team of developers during the Great Recession of 2008. The town was no exception to economic downturn, and it was unpredictable to determine what would become of A Big Kind of Small Town. Still blooming into its full form during a time of uncertainty, a chance was taken to proceed with building the community, and it wouldn’t be until 2012 when developers experienced a significant upturn once CC Homes joined the team and created Maple Ridge.

“We had great builders with a variety of products and potential for more commercial opportunities, it just took patience and willingness to proceed with this dream we had in my mind for the town and for everyone who called it home,” said Mr. Goguen.  

When speaking about willingness, this defined Karen Ledesma, her husband and four daughters who were among the first 80 families to move to Ave Maria and it wasn’t long until they were given the opportunity by BCC Commercial to become one of the first businesses established in the Town Center.

“There are opportunities for everyone that goes beyond just a home. My daughter taught dance lessons for neighbors’ kids not knowing it would become a popular request by community members for us to open a dance studio. We couldn’t afford something like that, but we decided anyways to take the chance by proposing the idea to Ave Maria Development, and they convinced us too that this was something the community needed,” Ms. Ledesma said. “I was very blessed in the time of a bad economy to create more for my family, and I thank Cee Cee Marinelli greatly for giving us the opportunity of making this dream come alive.”

The Ave Maria Dance Academy began its first year with 35 students, and currently enrolls more than 200 dancers per season – a direct reflection on how the town has grown and the inclining number of people living within it… “We chose to live here, knowing we had to use our imagination to see what would become of this place. My family trusted more would come and here it now is. Families everywhere, smiles on every street corner and memories made by everyone who are content in a town that has plenty to offer,” Ledesma said. Local businesses continue to thrive alongside Ledesma’s studio, with Ave Maria now home to more than 40 businesses in the Town Center, Park of Commerce and Publix retail shops.

Choices are not always predictable outcomes that can stand the test of time, and it took a lot of chances and unpredictable happenings which created the town, communities and history of Ave Maria. “We took a chance then and sometimes it’s hard to envision what that chance is, but now, people can see all that has gone on since its beginning. A lot more will continue to happen in Ave Maria and the communities surrounding it,” Mr. Goguen said. “We never gave up and we worked hard to create a strong destination of living and conveniences.” 

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