VENICE, Fla. — In the woods off a southwest Florida highway, a Republican business executive has built an entertainment complex to bring together like-minded conservatives for everything from speeches by far-right leaders to family barbecues.
A concrete entryway leads visitors through a black-painted hallway filled with quotes from Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. A reception hall is lined with a wall-sized copy of the Bill of Rights. A shooting range adjoins the facility, and a large sign reminds visitors of their Second Amendment rights.
There are also inflatable waterslides, a gazebo and picnic benches for kids.
Initially, Victor G. Mellor, the owner of a construction business, wasn’t sure anyone would show up. He’d invested his savings in creating a meeting spot for Republican partisans, home-school moms and others who shared his views on Donald Trump, gun rights and thorny topics like vaccine and mask mandates — convinced he could have a role in steering the nation further to the right.
But as the pandemic persisted, turnout grew. Longtime residents and new arrivals from other states began flocking to the site. So did far-right leaders. Trump’s controversial first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, became a frequent guest. Grass-roots organizations vying to unseat Republican Party members considered too moderate declared the complex, dubbed The Hollow, their home base.
“They have infiltrated our school systems and worked their way up,” Mellor said, referring to Democratic politicians he labeled socialists, in explaining why he felt a need to build the facility. “And now we have to start on all levels taking it back.”
As the Sunshine State shifts right — a trend evident in the Nov. 8 election, in which Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) won the state by nearly 20 points — researchers say more radical members of the Republican Party have grown emboldened. The Anti-Defamation League has recorded a “significant increase” in extremist-related incidents in Florida over the past year. At Mellor’s complex, the state’s most conservative residents have built a community geared around buttressing each other’s views.
As Mellor and Flynn align to try to push the Florida GOP even further to the right, other southwest Florida residents are worried. They accuse the pair of being agitators who use The Hollow to fuel a toxic style of politics under the guise of festive summer cookouts and holiday gatherings.
“This idea of forming this all-encompassing, family-oriented venue is rather brilliant on their part,” said Carol Lerner, a retired education analyst and researcher who produced a 30-page report that found elements of the far right were increasingly drawn to the 27-acre campus. “But that makes it super dangerous, too.”
Located in the middle of the west coast of Florida, Sarasota County includes wealthy enclaves along the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico, suburban housing developments and rural communities wedged among swamps and pine forests.
It’s here where Mellor said he chose to lay down roots in 1994 after four years in the Marine Corps. He quickly found work in construction and three years later started his own concrete business, testing his luck in the boom-bust South Florida prefabricated concrete market, he said. After filing for bankruptcy in 2010, Mellor formed a new company, American Precast.
As that company became successful, Mellor said, he started slowly paying closer attention to politics.
Initially, the father of three said his interest in politics was limited to his concerns that President Barack Obama would restrict firearms sales. He voted for Trump in 2016, drawn to the celebrity entrepreneur’s boisterous personality and stance on gun rights. Over time, he felt like the president wasn’t getting a fair treatment by the media.
“I said, ‘This isn’t right,’ and it’s why I kind of jumped in,” Mellor said.
After Trump was defeated in 2020, Mellor traveled to Washington and joined Trump supporters in marching to the U.S. Capitol in protest. “Just knocked on front doors,” Mellor, pictured on the Capitol grounds, said in a Facebook post on Jan. 6, 2021.
Mellor said he never entered the Capitol as the insurrection unfolded, and he was never charged with any wrongdoing. But he sympathizes with many of the demonstrators who now face criminal charges, referring to the pro-Trump mob that assaulted officers, trapped lawmakers and vandalized the home of Congress as “political prisoners.”
It wasn’t long after that that Mellor said he woke up one morning with the idea of turning an events space he had built into a “campground for kids based on the Constitution.” He told his kids they shouldn’t expect an inheritance. Instead, he was going to spend $3 million developing a complex on a property he’d acquired two years earlier in Venice, a city on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
He broke ground on new sections of the property using an excavator from his business. He dug a man-made lake and moats, brought in toys for kids and placed a large white cross near two benches. And he poured concrete to build pathways and bridges, wanting to use material that would withstand the test of time.
He officially christened it The Hollow, a reference to the type of precast concrete his business produces and the trees surrounding the complex, many of which are hollow. Then he waited for people to come.
Sarasota County has been a Republican stronghold for generations, the moderate, business-friendly wing of the GOP traditionally prevailing in local political contests. Recently, however, the county’s politics have lurched further to the right.
Conservatives now hold a 4-to-1 majority on the county school board after pro-DeSantis candidates touting “parental rights” dominated a contentious local race. Three conservative candidates skeptical of coronavirus vaccines were recently elected to oversee Sarasota Memorial Hospital, alarming doctors, hospital administrators and medical experts.
Flynn, who was pardoned by Trump after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States, moved two years ago to Sarasota, where he has become a significant force in local politics.
He and several of his friends and family members gained seats this summer on the 272-member Sarasota County Republican Party executive committee. Earlier this month, Flynn promoted a conservative challenger who was trying to unseat the incumbent county party chairman. But the Flynn-backed candidate was narrowly defeated.
Mellor was also key in supporting the local Sarasota GOP victories: He and his companies gave more than $30,000 to a local political action committee that supported conservative school board and hospital board candidates, according to campaign finance records. Mellor said he also hosted conservative leaders at The Hollow so they could campaign and fundraise.
Grass-roots groups like Sarasota Watchdogs, an organization that is pushing to expel moderate Republicans from the local party, consider The Hollow to be a gathering spot, according to interviews with conservative activists and meeting notices. Mellor also helped start a local chapter of Moms for America, a conservative group that urges women to shift the nation’s “culture” to the right. The group’s name is now affixed on a large sign at the entrance to The Hollow.
Flynn has visited or spoken at The Hollow more than 50 times, according to Mellor — and the retired Army general frequently touts the complex as he travels around the country to promote his view that the nation’s evangelical Christian way of life is under threat.
“It’s a terrific location, very patriotic, owned and designed and dreamed up by a former Marine,” Flynn told an audience over the summer. “He’s a terrific friend.”
Flynn declined requests for comment, including written questions that were submitted through Mellor, who now also acts as an informal spokesman for Flynn.
Over the past two years, Mellor and Flynn have stepped up their activities at The Hollow. There are “Patriot Appreciation Day” cookouts, “Biblical Citizenship” courses and youth firearm safety classes. The Hollow has become officially known as The Hollow2A in reference to the Second Amendment.
Members of the Proud Boys — the far-right chauvinistic group with a history of violence whose members include several people charged with storming the Capitol on Jan. 6 — have been photographed at The Hollow wearing their organization’s black and yellow T-shirts. The photos were uploaded onto The Hollow’s social media pages, which helped Lerner produce her report last spring.
Melissa Radovich, 41, a leader of Sarasota Watchdogs who is married to a member of the Proud Boys, said The Hollow provides an array of conservative groups a venue to gather and strategize.
“It should be the churches, and it used to be bars and taverns, but it’s such a beautiful place and right now you need a place for the community to meet,” Radovich said. “And people are getting involved in politics who normally don’t get involved in politics.”
In Sarasota County, the Proud Boys have been linked to acts of intimidation at demonstrations in support of abortion rights, school board meetings and gay rights gatherings. On the night of the primary election, a member of the group was also photographed holding his index finger to his thumb, a gesture associated with the white supremacy movement.
James Hoel, a leader of the Proud Boys in Sarasota County, declined to discuss his group’s activities when reached by The Washington Post.
In September, the Anti-Defamation League published a report that found Florida has become a nest of “widespread disinformation and conspiracy theories.”
Although Ben Popp, an investigator researcher at the ADL’s Center on Extremism, said some Proud Boys chapters in Florida are not as violent as others nationally, he said the group’s members still act as conduits for “extremist rhetoric” that they pass on to others.
“It is pretty clear that there are ideological bridges being developed between more mainstream individuals and some pretty hardcore extremists,” he said.
Rather than innocuous gatherings, some see The Hollow’s activities as a concerning signal of how far-right ideology is becoming infused in local political debates. The Sarasota chapter of Moms for America has held meetings and “movie nights” at The Hollow, and an array of speakers affiliated with the Christian right have spoken there under banners that read “Local Action has National Impact.”
“I think they are out to create a force to take over the country,” Lerner, the researcher, who identifies as a Democrat, said of Flynn and Mellor. “And they are doing it locally.”
Mellor scoffs at the suggestion he or the people who socialize at The Hollow are dangerous. He said the Proud Boys have never held a formal meeting at The Hollow — though he did let them set up a booth once to raise money for a Christmas toy drive. He acknowledged that Proud Boys members have also volunteered at the site.
“I have never had a Proud Boy meeting here, but I should,” said Mellor, who believes members of the group are no different from other fathers who visit The Hollow.
When residents sign up to volunteer at The Hollow, they are asked to confirm that they are comfortable around firearms. A sign with text against a backdrop of a Revolutionary War-era American flag notes the right to bear arms and states that, “Guaranteed, any attempt of violence toward our children will be met with overwhelming deadly force.” There is a gun range next to The Hollow — and though Mellor said he does not operate it, some of those who visit his complex also go to the adjacent facility for firearms training.
In the coming months, Mellor plans to double the size of The Hollow, adding a community garden, a butterfly farm and a planetarium. The entrepreneur turned activist is even considering creating a manatee rehabilitation facility on the property.
“This is a place for families,” Mellor said. “They build friendships, and the kids get to run around and play, and just be kids.”
The Post gained access to The Hollow in early August after being invited by Mellor onto the property. Mellor, who is deeply distrustful of the media, had a video crew document most of his interactions with a Post reporter and photographer.
At a gathering at the property, burgers simmered on the grill. Kids splashed around in a spray fountain. Others entered an inflated dome, where they got a lesson about the stars. Mellor does not charge a fee to access The Hollow, even though he estimates he now spends $1 million annually on its upkeep.
Amber Arehart, 33, visited the property with her four children, all of whom are home-schooled.
“We don’t trust the system, and what they are teaching, and I don’t trust people with my children,” she said, explaining her decision not to send her kids to public school and her interest in meeting others at The Hollow. “The world seems a little crazy to me. … And this is such a great community, and I feel it’s hard to find a great community.”
When Hurricane Ian battered southwest Florida in late September, it left parts of The Hollow submerged in 4 feet of floodwater. The water rose around The Hollow’s white cross and submerged Mellor’s pricey construction equipment.
Mellor and Flynn took a boat through the floodwaters to retrieve the U.S. flags. Mellor hopes to have the facility fully reopened in January, and he has been fielding requests to replicate the facility in other states.
The Hollow, Mellor said, is built to last.
“I do concrete, concrete is everywhere,” he said. “And it will be here forever.”