Panama on the Rise

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan - Boston Globe January 22, 2007

PANAMA CITY -- Long a freewheeling shipping hub and offshore banking center for the Americas, Panama is enjoying a building boom on a scale unmatched since the construction of its famous canal 92 years ago.

The country is luring investors and expatriates worldwide, with interest further boosted by the recent approval of a $5.2 billion plan that will double the canal's capacity.

A real estate frenzy fueled by easy credit from Panamanian banks, government incentives, and a saturated US housing market for retirees has attracted speculators and prospective residents from California to Dubai. They are snapping up preconstruction bay-front apartments, highland villas, and the latest luxury development from Donald Trump -- a $220 million residential, office, and hotel complex called Trump Ocean Club, with towers shaped like a yacht sail. Two rival Spanish projects are vying to build the tallest skyscraper in Latin America at about 100 stories.

Construction moguls and estate agents say Panama City is a sure bet for investors, offering discount prices for quality of life and healthcare rivaling the United States', more than 100 international banks, tax breaks, and stunning Atlantic and Pacific coastlines.

But urban planners and long time residents warn that overbuilding could ultimately strain the country's roads, water supply, and other infrastructure to the breaking point with devastating consequences.

Almost no one seems to be heeding those alarms.

Cranes, building sites, glitzy sales offices, and real estate package tours aimed at foreigners are everywhere, from Avenida Balboa in downtown Panama City to suburban Punta del Este. Laundered drug money from neighboring Colombia built some of the early mirrored high-rises in the 1980s, but today's buyers include fixed- income senior citizens from the United States searching for a less expensive place to retire as well as billionaires from Monaco and Cannes.

David Btesh, a partner in Pacific Point, a high-end condominium project under construction on a landfill in downtown Panama City with units ranging from $300,000 to $1.1 million, said foreigners are looking for a haven from a world they perceive as unsafe because of crime at home and global terrorism.

"They're not going to Europe because it's too expensive, Canada's too cold, and Mexico's only Spanish-speaking," while many Panamanians speak English, Btesh said.

"Panama is a dollar economy with a democratic government. There's every kind of food, a modern airport with about 54 flights a day, and the second-largest free-trade zone in the world after Hong Kong," he said.

US citizens represent two-thirds of foreign resident visas issued in Panama in recent years, officials say, with at least 1,379 Americans moving to the country since 2003. Celebrities from Mick Jagger to Bono reportedly have purchased property in resort areas outside the capital.

The canal, central to the country's history, also looms large in the current boom.

The United States supported Panama's declaration of independence from Colombia in 1903 in exchange for US control of a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In 1914, the US-built canal was completed, and the zone remained under US control until 2000.

In October, a majority of Panamanians voted to finance the construction of a third canal lock over the next decade that will allow the 50-mile lock and lake system to accommodate bigger ships and double toll revenues within 20 years, according to government estimates. Ricuarte Vásquez, minister for canal affairs, said the referendum "is a vote of confidence" in the local administration of the canal that has raised interest in Panama as an investment destination.

About 107 residential building projects of at least 20 stories, valued at $3.2 billion, are under construction in metropolitan Panama City, according a survey by Prima Panama, a real estate promotion company. That construction activity accounted for one-fifth of Panama's annual gross domestic product.

The report also found that about 11,000 apartments are scheduled for completion within four years -- the same number that were built over the past 11 years in metropolitan Miami, by comparison, where a glut has softened the market. The survey found that the average price of a new condo in Panama City is $289,111.

The cost has raised concerns about who will be able to afford to live in Panama.

Some will be the jet-set buyers targeted by the Trump complex, which is selling preconstruction condos from $400,000 to $8.7 million. The K Group, local developers of the project, says Americans including Trump, top the list of buyers at about 40 percent, followed by Canadians, Europeans, and Latin Americans.

Other buyers are expected to be baby boomers from the United States seeking more value for their retirement money. Modern Maturity magazine ranked the town of Boquete, in Panama's highlands, as one of the world's top retirement destinations.

Kit Marchel, a 35-year-old real estate investor, said she sold her Los Angeles condo last year for $3.3 million and bought an 8,000-square-foot villa at a southern Panama beach for $335,000. Since then, she has acquired 17 properties in resort areas and the capital, with plans to resell, rent, or redevelop them.

"The communications work, you can drink the water from the tap, there's no currency exchange issue, and it feels a lot like home," she said. "I've made a commitment to this country. . . . I did my research first. There's one baby boomer retiring every six seconds -- add those numbers up."

But a question nagging even the bullish is whether public services and demand can keep up with rising supply and prices. Already the capital suffers from traffic jams and fumes from untreated sewage that is dumped into Panama Bay. Public transport is sorely lacking, and the water supply is insufficient in poor neighborhoods.

"It's a time bomb -- you cannot meet the demand of all these high-rises with the infrastructure that exists," said urban planner Jorge Ricardo Riba, a former top official with the National Planning Office. "What happens when people start to live there?"

If the US economy weakens, he said, "there may not be enough buyers. I see a lot of empty apartments in the future."

Sandra Snyder, an American relocation consultant in Panama City who has written two books about expatriate life in Panama, also worries that the country's infrastructure cannot keep up with the pace of building. "This is such a lovely place, and I hate to see what's happening with this frenzy of building," she said.

A few developers say they are looking beyond the quick buck and want national and local officials to forestall problems before they arise.

José Bern of Empresas Bern, a hotel and real estate giant, said his biggest problem is finding workers to complete his projects on time and within budget. Panama City "is experiencing some growing pains, and it will get worse before it gets better," he said. "But maybe that's good, to slow things down."

Sarah Cox, a consultant with International Living, a publishing and seminar company, says the government has promised a new bridge, a wider main artery, a revamped bus system, a waste-water treatment plant, and a cleanup of the bay.

Cox acknowledges that speculation and overbuilding could bring down Latin America's new boomtown. But for now, she said, "I don't see that they'll stop building until people stop buying... It's like picking up dimes in front of a steamroller. As long as you can stay ahead of the steamroller, you're fine."