Economic development and the natural environment are frequently at odds in Puerto Rico and the latest example of this conflict is a renewed controversy over a tourist resort planned near Aguadilla, on Puerto Rico’s west coast.
Columbus Landing, in the works for nearly two decades, is a master-planned destination resort along the lines of Palmas del Mar centered around a casino hotel and with a condo hotel, condominiums and residential villas nestled nearby.
It will occupy 121 acres of prime, undeveloped oceanfront land located in the Playuela sector of Punta Borinquen, about a mile from Rafael Hernández Airport.
The site is a popular recreational area and a magnet for local and visiting surfers who are drawn by its internationally renowned surf breaks.
Supporters count on the project providing work opportunities for the area while detractors decry the loss of yet another unspoiled swath of land to encroaching development.
“People need jobs,” Carlos Méndez, the recently re-elected mayor of Aguadilla, told News Is My Business. “They need to put food on the table.”
But various groups who have banded together to resist the project say the area would be best served by keeping it as a natural reserve. They argue the resort is not sustainable, it’s in the wrong place as the area is prone to erosion and floods, and will impact the area’s environment, especially the local aquifers and the already endangered, surrounding coral life.
“We’re not against progress but it should be a sustainable development,” said Luis Villanueva, of Sierra Club Puerto Rico, noting that mega-tourist projects such as the one envisioned by the developers are no longer popular and that travelers are now seeking green spaces and eco-friendly hotels. “Those who want to see a casino can always find them in San Juan.”
Recently, initial work on Columbus Landing got off the ground when workers began to tear down trees to make room for an access road with sanitary, electric and fiber optic infrastructure work next on the agenda, according to one of the developers.
Concurrently, opponents have set up a protest camp in front of the construction site and launched a series of demonstrations with the latest one taking place this past Saturday.
It’s not the first time there is an effort to derail the development.
In fact, opposition seems to have nagged the project from its very inception in the 1990s which, combined with the island’s economic troubles and problems in capitalizing the project, managed to put it off until 2012 when the developers moved to get permits for the road now under construction.
Reinaldo Vincenty, a partner in Caribbean Management Group, the holding company that owns and is developing the land, said in a short telephone interview that all the final permits for the development are up to date and that they have been renewed yearly since their issuance in 1997. He compared this to a license renewal process.
A spokesman for the Puerto Rico Planning Board said a review of the Columbus Landing case file shows that the building site authorization, which dates to 1994 and is required ahead of any other permit, “is up to date and active” but he was unable to comment on the status of permits granted to the project.
Vincenty said the developers have financing for initial construction work but declined to comment on the total cost of the venture. He dismissed published reports regarding the scope of the development and its purported price tag of $50 million but declined to give any details. Opponents claim the figure could reach $100 million.
“This is a very Puerto Rican project,” said Vincenty, dismissing any involvement with a company called Stone Creek Partners, whose advisory work covers asset management, real estate development, hotel and resort feasibility consulting, among other areas.
In a phone call from his California-based office, Stone Creek CEO Donald Bredberg told News Is My Business that more that five years ago his company carried out some work for the owners of Columbus Landing and that it involved conducting due diligence on the project and some initial investor outreach. Nothing came of it and the company did not continue in any role.
Bredberg, who described the site for the planned resort as “one of the most beautiful places on Earth,” said he has been receiving a lot of hate mail recently.
A look at the company portal, whose “global reach” map includes Puerto Rico, carried the following disclaimer on a page devoted to the Columbus Landing project: “Citizens of Aguadilla, please note we have no involvement with this project at this time, our work for owner was completed several years ago.”
Boost to tourism, jobs
Vincenty said his project will help expand tourism which, he said, currently contributes only 4 percent to Puerto Rico’s GNP (the figure is actually higher, at 7.1 percent) compared to 80 percent in other Caribbean islands. Furthermore, it will create jobs though he did not mention just how many.
The mayor of Aguadilla said lack of employment opportunities is fueling the exodus of people from Puerto Rico and Columbus Landing will create more than 700 jobs, sorely needed to reduce the area’s unemployment rate of between 13 and 14 percent.
Méndez also stressed the necessity for more hotels to accommodate the growing number of tourists visiting the area.
“They have nowhere to stay,” he said.
Which is why the municipality recently built a 79-room hotel, next door to Aguadilla’s Aquatic Park, that will officially open sometime in January and February. Méndez said he is looking to brand the hotel and is holding conversations with three potential national chains: Wyndham, Holiday Inn and Hilton.
The hotel represents a $23 million investment, of which $19 million went into the construction; the balance will cover the cost of furnishing and outfitting the property.
Financing came from Banco Santander, Banco Popular and the Puerto Rico Economic Development Bank (the loan came prior to the bank freezing all new financing.)
“This is a self-paying project,” the mayor said.
Opponents of Columbus Landing, a mix of different groups comprising people from the area and from other parts of the island, are looking to promote “massive protests” in an effort to stop the project.
“(The developers) are not willing to consider a natural reserve because there is no money in that,” wrote an opponent in an e-mail related to a recent meeting at which the developers said they had discarded plans for a breakwater and a pier. “They will leave a path and a gazebo so the surfers won’t cry.”
Long time Aguadilla resident Edwin Loveland lamented that the developers of the project can’t see the site as land worth saving.
He would like to see the Columbus Landing site turned into a reforested park and a major tourist attraction. Columbus Landing, so called because this is where Columbus is believed to have landed on his second trip to the New World, already draws countless visitors, including surfers from all over the world and people who like to walk or jog along the property’s trails.
According to Movimiento Playuela, the property is a favorite area for paddle boarding, snorkeling, bathing, running 4-track, mountain bikes, fishing, and other activities.
“This is the area’s only lungs,” Loveland said.