This Was No Accident—Confessions Of A Developing-World Developer
In 2008, my husband Lief Simon and I launched a property development on Panama’s Pacific coast. This was the culmination of years of scouting, research, and consideration and even more years of experience with similar undertakings with friends and colleagues in other countries.
This time, though, in Panama, the plan was bigger scale and longer term than anything we’d been involved with previously…and far more personal. This time, it was all us. Our idea, our commitment, our money…nowhere to pass the buck.
But, again, we’d been buying and selling real estate in different countries for a dozen years by this time. We were bullish on the future of Panama. We had a trusted and tested team of resources and advisors on the ground. And Lief had identified a good deal on an extraordinarily beautiful piece of oceanfront property known as Los Islotes (named for the three little islands that lie just offshore).
Right market, right property, and, it seemed, right time in our lives.
So we put our money down. And allowed ourselves to grow a bit intoxicated on the visions of the singular oceanside community we intended to create.
Then something happened that we hadn’t counted on. The bottom fell out. Not in Panama, but in real estate markets the world over. We well understood by this time, of course, that markets go up…and down. But we didn’t expect so many global markets to go so down so soon after we’d embarked on our dream project. The effects were wide-sweeping.
Had we known at the time what lie just around the corner, would we have pulled the trigger on the plan we’d been cultivating for so long? We’ll never know.
What I can tell you now, if I’m honest, is that what followed wasn’t easy. We enjoyed a few heady months and then a few difficult years. Buyers for developing-world communities like the one we were undertaking became scarce. Some developing-world markets collapsed altogether, many developing-world developments went belly up, and we knew more than a few developing-world developers who ran out of cash and commitment and called it a day. Some of these remain MIA.
Lief and I were lucky (though it didn’t always feel that way at the time). We had other investments and other business activities. We recognized that, in our little arena, Los Islotes was too big to fail. That is, we couldn’t let it. So we didn’t let it.
Those first years, though, sales were few, and costs had to be covered out-of-pocket. So it goes. We made it through.
And, because we did, I no longer think of us as accidental developers, as I did for so long. It’s no accident that we and Los Islotes survived post-2008. That’s down to staying power, which, I’ve learned, is the key to success in all things overseas.
These were the thoughts running through my head as Lief and I approached the entrance to Los Islotes last Friday. We’d made the trip out from Panama City to check in on Project Manager Gary Mosely’s progress this past dry season. Gary and his crew continue work in earnest, but they’re transitioning into “rainy season mode.” Their progress will continue but slow a bit.
Gary picked us up at the landing strip about 10 minutes from the property, loaded us into his pickup truck, and turned to look at us together:
“Wait until you see,” he said, beaming. “Just wait until you see.”
A few minutes down the road, we came to the new bridge. All these years, we’ve had to drive through the little river just outside the Los Islotes entrance. Sometimes, in the rainy season, you can’t drive through. River’s too high to cross, so you have to turn around and head back home.
No longer. Now, thanks to Gary and his crew, we have a bridge.
We also have wide roads, extensive systems to direct rain flow (lest it damage our nice new roads), big underground tubes for utilities, massive tanks for water storage, a staging area where Gary is growing palm trees and safeguarding building materials, an office under construction, at least three lot owners embarking on construction of their own homes, and the start of construction of our Founder’s Lodge. We’re even preparing to begin work soon on our town center.
Backhoes, bulldozers, and work crews are around every bend in the road. These oceanside hectares are crisscrossed with activity.
“What do you think?” Gary asked us.
Neither Lief nor I could respond. Staring out the truck windows at all the men, all the equipment, all the effort under way, we were speechless.
Our heady days are behind us. We’ve been beaten up enough to know to keep things in perspective.
Our super-hard, getting-the-undertaking-off-the-ground days are behind us, too, though. With that realization, I allowed myself to smile.
“This is going to be amazing,” I said finally. “Just like we’ve always imagined.”
Six years from now, will we look back on this time and shake our heads at all we still didn’t know we didn’t know? Maybe…who knows.
And it doesn’t matter. We’re more committed and connected to Los Islotes right now than we’ve ever been, and that’s saying something. More tough times ahead? Sure. But without tough times, what stories would we have to tell?
It won’t be long now before we’ll be able to gather in our finished Founder’s Lodge with friends and fellow Los Islotes owners to tell our stories and to make more plans.
Meantime, we have more fellow Los Islotes owners all the time. Our plan isn’t only about infrastructure and construction. It’s also and more so about community. And we have the start of this, too. Owners are building homes and making plans. They share our vision but have their own, too, for what Los Islotes will mean for them and their families. We support their dreams along with our own.
Gary employs dozens of local workers. They’re part of the emerging Los Islotes community, too, and they’re just the beginning. In coming months, we’ll need more workers, different kinds of labor. We’re in this for the very long haul. We’re making our mark on this stretch of Panama’s coast, but we’re also becoming an important part of this region of Panama.
One local woman, a friend of Gary and his wife Karen, has become our first resident entrepreneur. Amada has opened a restaurant, just outside the entrance to Los Islotes. She’s cooking chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, rice, and potato salad and serving it at a cost of US$2.50 a plate on handmade wooden tables in a simple, basic, open-air setting. This is nothing fancy, but that’s ok. The food is great, the company endearing.
While we ate we watched as the blasting crew Gary had engaged blew a couple of mammoth boulders to bits. The boulders were in the way of our entrance road. Couldn’t go around them, so we had to go through them. It made for great live lunchtime entertainment.
Continue reading: Live And Invest In Colombia Conference March 2015