By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
But there might be no pulling up from Ave Maria University's nosedive. Its law school, which is still in Naples, remains in rapid decline. This summer, only 11 of 23 of its graduates passed the Florida Bar exam. At less than 48 percent, it was the worst result in the state and nearly 20 percentage points behind its closest competitor. The Ave Maria campus, meanwhile, continues to be plagued by high attrition. "If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't have come here," one shy biology major says with a soft Southern twang. "Moving out here to the middle of nowhere was not the college experience I was looking for."
Towey might be reforming Ave Maria University, but there is little he can do for the town itself. There the real baron is Barron Collier Companies, argues Georgia Hiller. The pretty Republican Collier County commissioner suspects that the company — via its control of the Ave Maria Stewardship Community District — is siphoning money from other parts of the county. This summer she ordered the county clerk to audit the district, but the results aren't in yet. "I was concerned about the accuracy of their numbers," she says. "Ave Maria is supposed to be an independent, self-supporting district. We should not be subsidizing it.
"Ave Maria is self-serving," she adds. "Obviously it's for Barron Collier's benefit, not anyone else's. And they are entitled to do it. If a business wants to make a profit, great. That's the American way. But you can't do it at the expense of the public."
Hiller describes Barron Collier as the county's "800-pound gorilla." She recently squared off with the company when she voted against enticing Maine-based biomedical group the Jackson Laboratory to Ave Maria. Barron Collier proposed giving the organization land for a research center if the state, county, and private donors would contribute a total of $380 million. "In effect, Jackson Labs wanted $380 million in cash for themselves, and Barron Collier would have been the indirect beneficiary," she says. The plan failed.
Blake Gable, the Barron Collier CEO, claims Hiller's audit is politically motivated. "I have a lot more faith in the people who work for us than in her ability to understand a balance sheet or budget," he says, adding that her opposition to the Jackson Laboratory deal was "pretty ignorant."
There are other signs that Ave Maria is leeching resources away from the county. On October 12, 2008, the town suffered its first truly violent crime. At 2:30 in the afternoon, two masked men, guns drawn, burst into Beckner Jewelry on the piazza. They quickly duct-taped owner Alan Beckner's feet, wrists, and mouth before stealing as much as $100,000 in jewelry.
But Ave Maria has no government of its own and no police force. It took county sheriffs at least 15 minutes to cover the 14 miles from Naples to the crime scene. By then, the thieves were long gone. Beckner was in shock.
"They had been casing the place for months," says one county employee who asked to remain anonymous. "The whole town was never set up for crime prevention. When we tried to give crime prevention classes, everything was pooh-poohed. They don't want to get bad news... What they are really looking for is to fleece the county taxpayers. They want us to baby-sit that place without any cost accruing to themselves."
But Monaghan hasn't escaped all of his bills. After a jury ruled in Katherine Ernsting's favor in May, the onetime pizza king settled with his ex-employee for more than $418,000. Two years ago, he paid out at least that much to Stephen Safranek.
Tony Turkovic, meanwhile, never fully rebounded from his two-week nightmare in Ave Maria. He transferred to St. Thomas Aquinas College near New York City, but managed only five games and zero field goals.
At least he escaped Ave Maria. Marielena Stuart says she is stuck there — her house is worth a fraction of what she paid for it. She hasn't appeared in public in the town since December, when she attended a town hall meeting about the Jackson Laboratory deal. "They threatened to remove me if I didn't write my questions down on a slip of paper," she fumes. "Well, I won't ask my questions anonymously."
Bizarrely, Stuart is now running for Florida's Republican U.S. Senate nomination. Even though she has never held office and is best known for her blog, she insists her campaign isn't about Ave Maria.
"I have nothing in common with this town," she says bitterly. "My house is here. It's on a lot. But my family and I have no connection to this town or the university." Stuart doesn't campaign in Ave Maria, and most of her neighbors aren't even aware she's running.
Yet she can't leave.
"It's a vicious town," Stuart says. "Once in, there is no way out."