After months of bureaucratic delays, and with financial backing from a new U.S. investor, developers of a large marina project in the small southeastern gulf town of Golfito are anxious to get their feet wet.
Before they can break ground on the first phases of their project – which entails a 217-slip marina, 184 hotel and condo units and commercial plazas – they have to wait for yet another permit.
The Golfito marina project has been years in the making. It has involved scraping up millions from investors willing to front the project, and jumping through legal hoops to gain approval of several different government institutions in Costa Rica – a country notorious for its sluggish bureaucracies.
With plans to break ground by the end of this year, the project would bring colossal investment, improve some infrastructure, and could create hundreds of jobs for the gulf town, which has been struggling with unemployment problems ever since the United Fruit Company packed up its banana export business, which single-handedly supported the community, and left (TT, July 8, 2005).
It would also mean an influx of yachtriding tourists for a town famed for its bountiful sportfishing and surrounded by two national parks and some of the most biologically diverse forests and waters in the country, home to jaguars and tapirs, dolphins and whales.
“The changes will be very, very radical,” Golfito Mayor Aida Soto told The Tico Times.
In the long term, the multiphase project could cost as much as $200 million and could include future plans for residential housing.
But Jim Lindskey, president of the development company Hacienda El Dorado, S.A., said the focus now is the marina and hotels.
Lindskey said the company hopes to break ground by the end of the year, so as to have the marina up and running by 2008.
Before any of that can happen, the developer must make it through the final stretch of trámite, or bureaucratic processes.
Delays in the massive project, previously scheduled to break ground earlier this year, have left some scratching their heads.
“I talked to (Hacienda El Dorado) at one point and they said they would have a groundbreaking the first quarter of (2006).
Then they said they would try to coordinate the groundbreaking with the inauguration of the new president… I would think they would want to let everybody know what the reasons are for the delay,” said Terry Littleton, a Florida resident who owns property in the Golfito area.
But Lindskey, as well as Mayor Soto, said the delays are normal for such a large project.
“The planning and approval process in Costa Rica for development of this scale is a very time-consuming, very thorough process,” Lindskey said.
After a four year process, Hacienda El Dorado was granted a concession this spring for the underwater area where the company plans to build, according to Vladimir Pérez, the GolfitoMunicipality’s Maritime Zone coordinator.
Earlier this month, the company again applied for building permits, which have until now been denied.
Pérez said the company has failed to meet one requirement to obtain construction permits. Lindskey said he has to post an environmental compliance guarantee with the Environment Ministry (MINAE). He said the company should have building permits within the next month, and will be ready to start construction by the end of the year.
Lindskey added that Las Vegas-based company Great American Capital will be putting up some of the money to finance the development.
He said Coastal Systems, the original investment company, was bought out by himself and Great American Capital. The change in investors has nothing to do with the project delays, according to Lindskey.
Since United Fruit bid farewell in 1985, a duty-free shopping compound and tourism are the only two enterprises that have sustained Golfito’s economy.
However, some say the duty-free shopping compound known as El Depósito Libre could be made obsolete with the passage of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), since the treaty would eliminate tariffs on most U.S. exports to the region (July 8, 2005).
The Golfito Marina, then, could be a major boon to the area’s tourism industry. “With 200 boats, using all the human resources and buying all of our products here, sales are going to go way up,” Mayor Soto said, adding that the community has struggled with high unemployment for decades. Lindskey estimated construction of phases one and two of the project could create as many as 600 jobs.
“It will improve the human factor a lot … but we don’t know how it will affect the environment, or if the contamination of the gulf will affect the diversity of marine life that attracts tourism… those boats will have to be washed, and will have to change their oil,” the mayor told The Tico Times.
Etilma Morales, conservation director for the Osa region for the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE), said the ministry’s primary concern will be to monitor the disposal of waste and fuels.
“We’re worried about the exploitation of the gulf… The gulf isn’t protected,” she told The Tico Times.
Morales is leading an effort to make the Golfo Dulce a protected zone. She is a part of the Coastal Marine Commission, a group of public and private interests that aims to present by 2007 a plan to legally protect the gulf, tranquil waters where many fish and other marine life – including dolphins, whales and sea turtles – head to reproduce.
Lindskey said Hacienda El Dorado is required to build a wastewater treatment plant in Golfito, a town without any such plant.
“So all the environmentalists who scream about this project should look at the reality of no treatment plant in Golfito,” Lindskey said. “We’re doing a lot for the environment. We’re actually taking care of existing problems in the town.”
The treatment plant would support the project, some nearby residential areas and the hospital, according to Lindskey.