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August 17, 2018

Ave Maria

Leap of Faith

Dominoes founder Tom Monaghan expected things to go smoothly when he began moving his Roman Catholic college from Michigan to Southwest Florida. But ...

Amy Keller | 9/1/2007
Ave Maria
Ave Maria [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

In 2002, Tom Monaghan was looking for a new home for Ave Maria College, the Roman Catholic college he’d founded four years earlier. Monaghan had sold his interest in Domino’s Pizza, the successful pizza chain he’d founded in 1960, for a reported $1 billion and had created

Ave Maria as a training ground for a new generation of ultraobservant businessmen, politicians, lawyers, scientists, priests and educators.

With 260 students, the school had outgrown its campus in Ypsilanti, Mich., which lacked an adequate chapel, dining facilities and athletic fields. Monaghan’s first choice for a new site was Domino’s Farms, a 1,700-acre complex in Ann Arbor where Domino’s Pizza is headquartered, and his plans were anything but modest, including the tallest freestanding crucifix in the world.

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But Ann Arbor Township refused to rezone the property, and Monaghan began looking elsewhere. He’d been vacationing regularly in Naples since 2001 and thought the sunny weather might be a good draw for faculty, staff and students. He liked the political climate as well. “The zoning is the opposite of what I experienced back in Michigan. First words out of the first commissioner’s mouth I talked to was, ‘What do we got to do to get you here?’ I’m not used to hearing that,” he recalls.

Sticker Shock: “One thing I thought about this area is it was going to be cheaper than Michigan. Our costs for construction in three years’ time doubled. I couldn’t believe it,” says Tom Monaghan, inside the town’s oratory. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
Monaghan initially focused his attention on an expensive parcel of land about three miles east of I-75 on Immokalee Road, just six miles from the beach and 20 miles from downtown Naples. But when word got out about his plans, the Barron Collier Co., a Naples-based land development company, called Monaghan with an offer. Barron Collier would give Monaghan 750 acres in Collier County for Monaghan’s university, and Barron Collier would develop the 4,000-plus acres around it with residential and commercial projects.

Monaghan hesitated because the Barron Collier site was so remote — 35 miles northeast of downtown Naples near Immokalee, a rural town with a large population of migrants who work the area’s tomato and sod farms. But the lure of free land won out. “Everything’s going to fill in anyhow because it’s growing so fast, and so we won’t be out in the boondocks for long,” he says.

The landscape — formerly tomato and vegetable fields — is already changing. A small, European-style town now wraps, horseshoe-style, around a 104-foot tall steel and stone cathedral called an “oratory.” Streets with names like Pope John Paul II Boulevard branch off from the town center like spokes of a wheel toward neatly laid out subdivisions, where homes with barrel-tile roofs are springing up.

Just a short walk from the oratory is Monaghan’s long-awaited university — its six buildings reflecting Frank Lloyd Wright’s “prairie-style” architecture. Each has its own chapel. So far, Monaghan says he is impressed with the results: “It’s come together, and I’m really excited now. Last time I was out there I was just enthralled.”

Tags: North Central, Education

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