Foreign developers remain hot on Nicaragua

Investors who have stuck with Nicaragua through thick and thin say the country is still heading in the right direction, despite all the unexpected twists and turns along the way

TOLA—Rooting for Nicaragua can be a bit like rooting for the Boston Red Sox. As fans, we often become hooked at first exposure, but then have a hard time explaining our faith to the unanointed.

We celebrate victories a little too joyously and take defeats a bit too personally. We’re constantly amazed at how quickly a crushing loss can follow on the heels of a brilliant win, and vice versa. Nicaragua, like the Red Sox, is capable of blowing a 10-run lead in the eighth inning, just as easily as it can pull off the most unlikely come-from-behind victory just as most fans are ready to leave the park in disgust.

Consistency, and her fair cousin predictability, left town the day this love affair began.

Regardless of whether the team is winning or losing, as fans we always second guess the manager and suspect the team’s ownership cares mostly about profit. We always blame our troubles on the Yankees (or yanquis), partially for historical reasons and partially because it’s easier to condemn the “evil empire” than admit our own failures.

But not matter how many disappointing setbacks we’re forced to endure over the years, we’ve tasted enough success in this rocky relationship to know that the beautiful dream is indeed attainable. As fans, hope springs eternal; we always think: “This will be our year” (note to readers: Nicaragua is actually having a better season than the Red Sox—Nicaragua’s economy is expected to lead its division, the Central American North, with 4% growth this year, while the Red Sox are playing under.500 and struggling to get out of the cellar in the AL East)

After many frustrating “rebuilding seasons” (34 to be exact), Nicaragua is starting to look like a contender. But those who have been following the team for a while know it’s still going to be a long season, where anything can happen. 

Matt Prezzano, of Rancho Santana (photo/ Tim Rogers)

“We are still in the third inning of a nine inning game,” says Rancho Santana’s Guest Services Manager Matt Prezzano, keeping the baseball analogy alive for a record seven paragraphs.

One of the country’s most evolved residential development projects, Rancho Santana has been involved in Nicaragua since 1997—back at the beginning of the Alemán administration, when the Red Sox finished in fourth place in the AL East. Spread over 2,700 acres of rolling farmland, beach and forest, Rancho Santana is a collection of more than 50 homes and 25 villas. It has as a mini-grocery market, a fully functioning clubhouse, the best restaurant in Tola (and one of the best in Nicaragua), and the first modern conference center on the Pacific coast.

If Rancho Santana is only in the third inning, most other development projects in Nicaragua are somewhere between pre-game batting practice and the bottom of the second with runners on first and second and one out (an infield-fly rule situation, for those of you scoring at home).

“Rancho Santana is very unique in that it was one of the first significant tourism-investment projects made by foreigners in the Republic of Nicaragua,” Prezzano said. “They helped put Nicaragua tourism on the map through various press publications and have been marketing Nicaragua tourism for over 12 years.”

The new clubhouse and conference center, which Prezzano calls a “game changer” for Nicaragua’s coastal development, has set the bar for Tola and quickly become a popular venue for weddings, fiestas, fetes, festivities, functions and other fun.

After more than a decade of investing and developing in Nicaragua, Rancho Santana remains positive about the country and its future.

“If you step back and look at the big picture, it is a country that is moving in the positive direction. Since 1997, the general infrastructure of roads, electricity, water, airports and frequency of international flights has improved greatly,” Prezzano says.

Lori and Jorge Estrada, owners of Montecristo Beach, have been involved in developing a seaside residential community in Nicaragua for six years, after moving here in 1997. They too realize that investing here is a labor of love, but one well worth the effort.

After spending millions of dollars on their 2,000-acre development—a diverse topographical offering of forest, mountains, valleys, rivers and beaches—the project is starting to take the distinguishable form of the residential community they envisioned when they bought the first property in 2005.

“We have home owners in their early 30s, others in their 70s, and everything in between,” says Mrs. Estrada, a U.S. citizen. “We envision ourselves as a full-time community, or at least one where people live a good part of the year. We have quite a few residents moving into their homes full time this year.”

Montecristo is a series of interconnected neighborhoods overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Home sites are under construction and the development’s Mike Young-designed golf course is “well underway,” Estrada says.

Lori and Jorge, whose family is from Nicaragua, remain positive about the direction of the country. They think Nicaragua will eventually catch up to other countries in the region and reassert its former role as a leader in Central America. Despite the normal problems and delays, Nicaragua is a good place to do business, Mrs. Estrada says.

“It is true that there are delays sometimes, but other times I am simply amazed at how quickly and easily something can get done,” she says.

Ultimately, she says, it’s the country’s friendliness and warmth that keeps the Estradas and their three kids happy in Nicaragua.

“We love that it has a culture where the family unit is close,” she says. “We love the climate, the natural beauty and we love the welcoming friendly people of Nicaragua, where day-to-day business is more personal.”

Many people have found that Nicaragua is a good place to bring the whole family and raise children. Over the past five years, Nicaragua has moved beyond “Expat Settlement Phase I,” where the country is viewed only as remote/backwards outpost in need of saving and/or suitable for hiding. Those who moved here during Phase I were mostly roughnecks, cowboys, missionaries, do-gooders or loners. But as Nicaragua evolves, it’s getting discovered as a safe, inviting and family-friendly place.

Roger and Carolyn Keeling (photo/ Tim Rogers)

“Quite frankly, we fell in love with the country and its people,” says Roger Keeling, who moved here from Atlanta in 2007 with his wife Carolyn and young daughter Claire to develop Milagro del Mar Beach Club, a multifaceted beach and golf resort on the central Pacific coastline. “We saw a chance to become immersed in a community in a compelling way that would allow us to have a positive influence.”

As Nicaragua’s economy and real estate market grows, Keeling says he’s confident that projects such as Milagro del Mar will appeal to a broad demographic base, and “support the ongoing efforts to build awareness and understanding of Nicaragua as an exciting place to visit, invest, work and retire.”

The Keelings foray into Nicaragua didn’t happen by chance or the by the usual family connection, rather as a result of careful homework.

“After visiting several other countries in the region, we came to Nicaragua and were immediately captivated by the life here, from the warm people to the strong culture to the amazing natural diversity. It didn’t take long to also recognize the potential of being part of an economy that was shifting gears and gaining momentum,” Keeling says.

It’s not all sunsets and giggles, however. Keeling admits that it can be challenging to deal with some of the issues that arise. But overall, he says, the Nicaragua is undergoing a “truly amazing rebirth” that he thinks will result in the country becoming “one of the strongest and most robust countries in the entire hemisphere” within the next decade.

It’s an exciting time to be in Nicaragua, he says. And that excitement is contagious.

“We find that people who consider investing here are excited by the sense of becoming involved in a place where the future is opening up more each day,” Keeling says. “There’s a sense of optimism and adventure, a spirit of coming together that is very refreshing for those of us who believe Nicaragua is stepping onto the world stage.”

For some, Nicaragua is nothing less than a love affair.

Kevin Fleming (photo / Tim Rogers)

“In my case, it really is a love story. I’m originally from Canada and, while living there, I met Maria, a native of Nicaragua, who became my wife. When she brought me here, I also fell in love with the country and its people and saw there could be tremendous opportunity here for someone with vision and a sense of adventure. This is a place with many special attributes and a very bright future,” says Kevin Fleming, of Seaside Mariana Oceanfront Community, which will be home to a future Wyndham Mariana Resort and a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course.

Fleming says his Grupo Mariana has invested more than $10 million in Nicaragua over the past eight years—a long sowing season that Fleming is confident will bear fruit in the years to come.

 “Certainly there are challenges to working here, but that is improving as more and more people come together to make things go smoother for the overall good,” Fleming says. “And we like the fact that our efforts can be part of the drive to bring positive change and help people better themselves.”

Tourism investment is also helping develop the more rural Caribbean coast. Don Kraft of Casa Canada resort on Big Corn Island says tourism is helping to raise the standard of living for islanders, too.

 

Casa Canada, Big Corn Island (photo/ Tim Rogers)

“Nicaragua is eager to grow its tourism business and welcomes partners to that end,” Kraft says.

“Nicaragua has a great deal of potential just waiting to be unlocked. We love the country and its natural setting. And we want to share this with the world without losing its attraction. It is not as commercialized as most Caribbean countries.”

Developers who opted to invest in Granada are also feeling positive about the country’s future. After traveling the country extensively for several years in the late 1990s, Ken Cole found a spot on Lake Cocibolca, 10 minutes from Granada’s Central Park, to build Brisas del Lago, a series of lakefront condos for sale or rent.

“The location provides views of volcanoes and the lake, with a feeling of being at the ocean with the sound of waves created by the trade winds,” Cole says of his walled project, the first U.S.-style condo project in Granada, featuring a swimming pool, club house, rancho and an underground tunnel to access the beach and lake.

Cole says he takes all the little setbacks in good stride.

“I am never surprised at the frustration of doing business in Nicaragua,” he says. “First, we have to remember it is a Third World country. At times it is very difficult to get things done.”

The secret, he says, is to find good local help.

Brisas del Lago, Granada

“I have an advantage by having a Nica partner who knows how to operate in the business world here and has made me feel like a member of his family,” Cole says. “My advice to anyone investing
to be sure to know the procedures in dealing with lawyers, business and the government. In Granada there are hundreds of Gringos who have lived here for years that can be a source of good advice.”

Building strong local relationships is key, agrees Marc Membreno, of the $10 million Marina Puesta del Sol, the country’s first marina and yacht club, complete with a luxury-suite hotel, beach club, tennis courts, pools and restaurant.

“We have, over the past 10 years, had our share of delays, hurdles and problems to overcome,” Membreno says. “Every day, a new challenge arises that needs to be addressed. We know that there are no shortcuts, and our firm has always been guided by strict ethical practices in the way we conduct our business. Especially when it may seem the playing field has changed, it is crucial to maintain and uphold one’s ethical and moral resolve – even if that may mean prolonged delays.”

Membreno says his family has worked hard to build strong relationships with the local communities, municipalities and governmental institutions, “and look to them to help and support us in our efforts to promote the country.”

“We think there is an amazing potential for growth in Nicaragua’s sustainable tourism,” he says. “Tourism in Nicaragua is still somewhat in its infancy as the country’s infrastructure moves forward and develops, but there are already tangible indicators that this growth and expansion is coming about.”

If only the Red Sox’s prospects were so good.

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