Faith and Opportunity

Faith and Opportunity

By Roger Williams

Gulfshore Business / 2007 / 12 /
Ave Maria is offering all it can to lure business prospects to its brand new town.

Jeanne Weber Rush knew that opening a new women’s clothing boutique in the nascent town of Ave Maria wouldn’t be quick. And since she has shops established in Ohio and Indiana and lives in Indiana, she knew it wouldn’t be altogether pragmatic, either.

“I consider Ave Maria a divine intervention,” she says. “I wasn’t really looking for a new business. I have three highly successful women’s stores already. But I was reading something in The Wall Street Journal about the Ave Maria Mutual Funds,” which invest in companies that adhere to Catholic principles. “I went online, and up popped this town. It was Aug. 7, 2004. I immediately e-mailed them.”

She traded e-mails with Rod Caston, the retail-space front man for the Courtelis Co., and Blake Gable, the Ave Maria project manager for Barron Collier Companies, developer and partner of Ave Maria founder and financial backer Tom Monaghan.

In 2006, she flew down to meet Caston and Gable. Later she met Monaghan, with whom she has now embarked on at least one yet-to-be-announced charitable endeavor for the university, she says.

Rush, now 55, plans to open The Secret Ingredient in January in the town center, about 90 yards from the oratory—the cathedral-style house of worship—that looms over it and the university campus.

She is one of about 30 business owners who have signed leases so far for shops in and around the town center, including The Bean of Sanibel (and now Ave Maria), Cilantro Tamales, Beckner Jewelry & Repairs and The Island Bike Shop. Doctors, lawyers, salons, a drugstore, two banks, a gas station, the company that helped lay out the town’s design (WilsonMiller) and others will open doors in the first months of the new year.

Ave Maria is emerging as an anatomical whole where wilderness and farm fields sprawled a few short years ago, and residents and businesses are gradually moving in to the commercial and residential spaces.

Made possible by the Rural Land Stewardship Program, which state lawmakers approved in 2001, it is the first of several towns slated to be carved out of the similarly undeveloped lands—Babcock Ranch and Big Cypress. But it takes more than development and people to create a town; it takes a business community. Ave Maria’s is being formed partly by business leaders looking for opportunities and lower land costs, and partly by those motivated by the Catholic principles that underlie the eponymous university at its center.

With Ave Maria, says Caston, “I’ve run into a group of retailers that are much more passionate than any I’ve met before in my 20 years in the business. Most are attracted by what the town and university [are] about, or by how their family will be able to grow up here and work here. A lot of them are involved in the university.”

A Necessary Passion
Efforts to develop the business base focused mostly on local businesses, with recruiters offering to work with them through the challenging first years.

“We know that for them, first of all, this is not a charitable work. It’s a business, it’s for profit,” says Gable. “We recognize the economics of operating a business, and we say to them, ‘We’ll work with you in the initial years. We’re asking you to make an investment in us.’ As the town becomes more successful, if they want to open another shop or do something else, they’ll have first choice. We recognize there are other places they can invest their money, so we’ll give them something in return for their commitment.”

Not everybody makes the cut, says Caston, including some national chains—which is another aspect that appealed to Rush.

“We want people who have unique products, especially if they’re either living in the community or studying in the community,” says Caston. “We’ve turned away tenants who are too common, or big chains or those suited for a strip shopping mall. And we’ve turned people away who had the passion, but who didn’t have the resources or the background.”

It takes a certain passion for a small retailer to open there right now, says Dave Wallace, associate broker at Premier Properties of Southwest Florida in Naples.”It would allow you to position yourself on the ground floor to take advantage of a growing and thriving community,” he says. “Just as some people look at their home purchase as a quality-of-life issue and not just an economic one, these folks are looking at their business location as a quality-of-life issue.”

In that attitude, perhaps, lies the willingness of retailers here to put up with startup irritations they might not face in other areas. Among them are leasing rates that reflect much more populated Naples locations, ranging upward of $20 a square foot, plus $5 to $9 in costs of new construction and delays while a multitude of permits are processed. Rush, for example, will pay about $28 a square foot to lease space for her shop, she says.

What’s more, businesses opening to serve the local population have to sustain the costs of a new business—lease, equipment, inventory and so forth—until they have a substantial population to serve. Although there are non-student residents now (some of the condominiums above the shops in the town center are inhabited, and homes are springing up in developments across the 5,000-acre town), the demographics might not support the bottom-line needs of owners for at least a year, or even two or three.

For retailers near the oratory, traffic likely will remain low. Although a few hundred students live on campus, they might not have the budget to eat very often in the three or four restaurants or buy goods in some of the shops.

Nonetheless, the retail space in the town center is almost fully leased. The industrial space is filling more slowly, but that was expected, says Gable. “We never thought this would be an instant process. We’re looking at a 10-year evolution.”
Economic Incentive
Rush’s reasons for opening her shop in Ave Maria have nothing to do with the reasons that corporate CEOs would move their companies into commercial parks in Ave Maria. Tammie Nemecek, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Collier County, makes a strong distinction between the two kinds of businesses.

“For [corporate commercial ventures], profitability isn’t derived from Ave Maria itself. Why a bike shop goes out there and what it is, is a very different discussion than why Arthrex goes out there and what it is,” she says.

Arthrex Inc., a medical-device manufacturer with corporate offices on Creekside Boulevard in Naples, will expand with a new facility on a 12-acre site in Ave Maria. “The point of them moving out there is that land is less expensive in eastern Collier,” says Nemecek. “They’re looking at a 30-year balance sheet, whereas a retail company looking to go out there might decide it’s OK if profits aren’t there at first.”

Although Ave Maria has not been singled out (as Immokalee and Everglades City have) as a special enterprise zone, with benefits and incentives for companies moving there, eastern Collier County has, says Nemecek.

The county provides an economic-stimulus package to companies that qualify and move into eastern Collier. To qualify, they must pay more than the average annual wage of $43,000 in eastern Collier, and they have to be in one of the sectors the Economic Development Council targets for recruiting, such as biomedical production, computer software, corporate and regional headquarters, or wholesale trade distribution. They also have to provide more than 10 new jobs (Arthrex will add 200 to eastern Collier) and bring in revenue from outside the area. Other incentives include fast-track permitting and workforce training, along with state programs that help with property-tax and sales-tax reimbursements.

“Then we come in as consultants in their relocation and expansion,” explains Nemecek. “We assess what workforce needs they might have, we develop training programs, and if a company is relocating, we can help spouses find jobs, and so on.” Such incentives are “something we use at the end of the conversation,” says Nemecek.

“They’re looking at, number one: Do I have workforce profitability? And in eastern Collier you have a regional workforce you’ll be pulling from, easier commutes and growing schools, and a beautiful, less expensive place to live.”

A mile or so from the commercial park where Arthrex—a prize recruit for the town—will locate lie the town center and university.

A Boost for Immokalee?
The biggest commercial building in the town center is the new Florida Community Bank. The 84-year-old bank has 10 offices throughout Southwest Florida, about $1 billion in assets and 170 employees (about 30 will work in Ave Maria), and is an Immokalee icon. Chairman, president and CEO Steve Price spent much of his boyhood in Immokalee. He graduated from the same high school where he now prepares meals for the football team before each game.

Why move the bank’s headquarters out of Immokalee and into a predominantly Catholic community? “We can meet our business needs, and do the right thing by Immokalee,” he says. “Our motivation wasn’t strictly a typical business thing, going out there hoping for profits right off the bat. We don’t think that’s going to happen for two or three years.”
Moving to Ave Maria will help recruit quality personnel, he says. “The [employees] we’re trying to attract—the kind of management-level folks you need at a billion-dollar bank—there’s not much for them in Immokalee. To us, it’s our home, but to them it’s not aesthetically pleasing.” Whatever their faith or denomination, he adds, “they see Ave Maria, a university town, as very attractive.”

It’s unlikely that Ave Maria will transform the business character of Immokalee, Price says. “Ave Maria’s not going to merge into Immokalee, but I don’t think people understand yet what the impact will be: jobs, educational opportunities, and just the social work. Typically when you have a religious college, you have a socially conscious group of people at a young and impressionable age, and they’re going to make things right.” They’re not the only ones. Rush has already spent significant time in Immokalee, connecting with the Catholic church there and planning ways to help local women.

Moving and opening a shop in a newly minted town in Florida from an established home and business community in the Midwest carries risks, Rush acknowledges, and she had to push back her plans due to construction and permitting delays. But her optimism is high.
“I think, ‘What’s the worst that can happen? I have options. I could sell up here, I could close down there.’ A lot of times the most valuable things come from the biggest risks,” she says. “This is a project with such magnitude, and sometimes there are things more important in life than the bottom line.”

Article originally posted at:

http://www.gulfshorebusiness.com/Articles/2007/12/Faith-Opportunity.asp

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