MindSpring founder Charles Brewer, a dot-com guru turned “new urbanist” developer, has been having Costa Rican dreams, with a little bit of the Italian coast and Florida Panhandle thrown in to keep things interesting.
Brewer and a small group of partners have purchased 1,200 hilly acres along the northern Pacific coast of the Central American nation where they plan to build a new town -- Las Catalinas -- over the next few decades. Think Seaside, Fla., (the postcard-perfect Panhandle beach village between Panama City and Destin) meets Italy's Cinque Terre.
“It’s like Seaside programatically, the idea of intentionally building a walkable town along the beach,” Brewer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during an interview at his Ansley Park home. “But it won’t look anything like Seaside. It’s much more like a Mediterranean, pedestrian hillside town.”
The first half-dozen or so homes, including Brewer’s own 8,000-square-foot retreat, are now rising from an isolated peninsula that overlooks a crescent-shaped beach lapped by turquoise waters. Brewer’s company has just begun marketing the next phase of the project, which will be aimed at the buyers of vacation homes with a taste for the exotic and the bank accounts to afford it. Initial home prices will range from about $500,000 to $1 million.
Restaurants, small hotels and more townhomes and houses will follow, said Brewer, who envisions a town of 2,000 or so residences a few decades or so down the road. The primary market for Las Catalinas homes will be part-time residents, Brewer said, but his goal is to have a third or more full-timers.
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More than 80 percent of the 1,200-acre site will be left as a wild buffer, Brewer said, with development taking place on about 18 percent of the total land area.
Brewer said if his company can sell 50 houses a year “that would be a rapid pace.” At that rate it would take 40 years to complete the town. But he added: “We will not do that anytime soon.”
“It’s a very conservative, creep-out, not leap-out model,” Brewer said. “If we go a little slower, it’s OK. If we go a little faster, that’s even better.”
The 51-year-old Brewer -- who made millions a decade back when MindSpring merged with EarthLink -- is no stranger to summoning livable space from a blank slate. He created Glenwood Park near East Atlanta on a 28-acre brown-field site that has been transformed into a mix of residential, retail and office space.
That project has been a success from a residential standpoint (it has won a wall full of awards). However, the retail part of the project has fallen short. By Brewer’s own estimate, the retail property is only 60 percent occupied.
Brewer became a devotee of new urbanism -- communities where homes, work space and retail coexist in an eco-friendly setting -- after he read “Suburban Nation” by Andres Duany, the father of the mixed-use movement.
The high-tech entrepreneur -- he left the Internet world just after the EarthLink merger -- had also become consumed with the idea of creating a hillside beach town. He and his family had vacationed at Seaside since 2002, and the concept behind that award-winning community left a huge impression on him.
“The experience for a family with children of being in a place where it really is fun to come out of your house and it’s pretty and it’s safe -- it’s a profound experience and so much better than a fancy hotel experience,” Brewer said. He and his wife, Ginny, have three children, ages 5, 9 and 10.
By 2004, Brewer had begun searching for a large parcel of land where he could build his own oceanfront town. He soon ran into Bob Davey, a Realtor with 17 years of experience in Costa Rica, who had the Las Catalinas land under contract. Brewer also partnered with Atlantan Tom Claugus, founder of the GMT Capital hedge fund, Stuart Meddin and Jim Berry.
“We have 25 or so total investors,” said Brewer, noting that he and Claugus are the most heavily invested. “Half are from Atlanta.”
The group paid $26 million cash for the land in 2006. Brewer, who emphasized frugality as one of his core values when he ran MindSpring, said the company will only build residences after they are sold.
“I really don’t believe in having debt on the land,” Brewer said. “It’s a pay-as-you-go model, which may be the only model that's really viable in the economy right now.”
The recessionary economy has not been kind to the vacation home market. Two years ago, second-home prices dipped 30 percent or more, though they recovered a bit last year.
“The market in Costa Rica has started to pick up considerably,” said Chicago Realtor Debbie Maue, the former National Association of Realtors liaison to the country. “Fortunately, Costa Rica doesn’t just rely on the U.S. for buyers.”
Maue said she was unaware of any other project like Brewer’s -- the creation of an entire town -- in Costa Rica. But there is plenty of resort-home development in the Central American nation, she said, creating a highly charged environment for Las Catalinas.
“The stuff over $500,000 is a tough sell,” she said. “You have to be pretty appealing, and there is a lot of competition out there. A number of projects have fallen through or are on hold.”
Brewer said that even with the current downturn, the Las Catalinas homes should appeal to investors and second-home buyers.
Brewer and his partners plan to market the town domestically and internationally. He recently hosted about 100 potential buyers at his Atlanta home. They sipped ginger-laced margaritas and nibbled finger food as Brewer waxed poetic over a PowerPoint presentation about his new town.
One selling point: It’s only four hours by air from Atlanta to the Liberia airport in Costa Rica. Las Catalinas is about 30 minutes by car from that airport. Have breakfast in Atlanta, lunch in Costa Rica, Brewer tells his guests.
“The only way for a project like this to succeed is to be so good people talk about it,” he said later. “You can’t advertise your way to success. You have to be really good.”
The economic downturn, he said, has been beneficial in some ways to the project in that it permitted additional time for him and his business partners to “get it right.”
“I really do think we can build one of the most beautiful, enjoyable places that has ever been built,” Brewer said. “I think we can do something completely extraordinary.”