To Greener Pastures
While Bay Islands continue to attract foreign residents, some of them leave. Why are they leaving, and can anything be done to keep them here?

September 1st, 2007
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] v5-9-Feature-PanamaBay Islands, like it or not, find themselves in competition as a retirement and resettlement destination against Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Mexico. Despite the influx of foreigners to the Bay Islands, a trickle of people continue to leave Bay Islands for a “better place.”

A litany of issues has distressed many, some to the point that they have left the island. These issues range from frustration with getting legal residency documents, bribing officials, and falsifying land titles, to worries about emergency healthcare, education of children, the environmental destruction. Many are concerned with the direction the island is growing toward. Many have simply grown restless.

Today Bay Islands is host to a growing number of foreigners whose goals don’t go beyond making a quick profit on a temporary investment. Flip a property, make a profit and leave. Most don’t see themselves staying here more than absolutely necessary. While the business climate is attracting these people more and more, this article focuses on those people who have developed a deeper, more long-term commitment to the islands but who have decided to leave.

While education, law enforcement, security, and outpatient healthcare are incrementally improving, the process will take years and by no means has a secured future. Bay Islands VOICE has identified ten chief reasons why foreigners, and in some cases islanders, are leaving Bay Islands.

The Copan Contingent:

More preoccupied with discouraging people to move to Copan than with explaining her move away from Roatan, Tanya Clemenston says jokingly, “Tell them not to come to Copan. There is dengue, malaria and dirty water here.” She is not alone in her desire for Copan to remain a well-kept secret. Copan has become a refuge for a small colony of around half a dozen ex-Roatanians: Lloyd Davidson, Jim Bracken, Pat Merritt, and Dennis Bridal. Other than an occasional visit to Roatan, they haven’t looked back. They almost all own successful Copan businesses-restaurants, bars, a bird park, tourist info places-and are quite comfortable in the cobblestone streets of the small but growing town.

The town offers the accessibility of driving to San Pedro Sula or Guatemala City, both just a few hours by car. The mountain town is more laid back than Roatan, growing yet still very much affordable. “We don’t even have one real estate office,” says Lloyd Davidson, with a certain amount of pride.

Colonia La Ceiba:

Some potential Bay Islands investors who were priced out of the Roatan market have turned to investment in La Ceiba, a costal town of 150,000 people which offers the affordability Roatan had five years ago. La Ceiba’s lure to those suffering from “island fever” is bolstered by its proximity to mountain rivers and national parks, its convenient drive to San Pedro Sula and its low construction costs.

Several Bay Islands expats moved to La Ceiba in an attempt to educate their children. Terry Anderson, Michelle Lopez, and Susan and Henrik Jensen all lived in La Ceiba while their children attended Mazapan High School. While some remained, most of them eventually did return to Roatan.

Kent Owenby, developer of several Roatan early home projects like Las Palmas and Palmetto Bay Plantation, has lived in La Ceiba for several years now. He started Mango Tree Villas, a real estate development project on the coast and has a real estate office as well.

Nicaragua Transfer:

This Central American country has been attracting expats with its nature, affordability and low crime rates. Nicaragua has attracted the interest of at least two Roatan expats.

Francois Paparone, a French restaurant owner in West End, moved to Nicaragua after his West End home was robbed four times. He lost all his baby photos, collection of watches, even baby clothes. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Paparone sold his business within a couple of months and packed whatever remained of his belongings. Today Paparone runs Palermo Restaurant in San Juan del Sur, an hour’s drive from Grenada.

Hal Sorrenti, a designer who created a successful architectural office on Roatan, has lived on the island since 1994. He now has another growing office in Grenada. While his Nicaraguan clientele grows, Sorrenti finds he spends more time there. “It’s just really nice,” says Hal.

Booming Panama:

Americans and Canadians aren’t the only foreigners going to Panama. Chinese, Columbians and Venezuelans see Panama as a place to invest and to settle their families. Some Columbian businessmen, in fear of family kidnappings for ransom, have moved their families to Panama and fly in to visit them for the weekend. The airport abounds with daily flights to Cali, Cartagena, Guayaquil and Bogota. The infrastructure of Panama is impressive: a hub of air and sea transport to all over the world, 110 banks, five fiber optic cables passing through its oceanic isthmus.

Still, the city of Panama is far from perfect. You can see street prostitutes and the foreign sex tourists who flock to them. Additionally, child prostitution is visible on the streets of the capital, as are plenty of foreigners who take advantage of it. These foreigners can be seen walking the streets holding hands with Panamanian street children.

The problems don’t end there. The city has never developed an adequate septic system and much of its sewage ends up in the bay. During hot months the stench at the seawall can be overwhelming.

Despite the image of banking hub, Panama is on the US list of 25 countries that lack transparency in their banking. Still, and maybe because of this, the place is bursting with baby boomers. Attracted by tax incentives and easy residency, between 10 and 30 thousand American are expected to retire there in the next 10 years.

Their move is eased by information centers and internet portals offering all kinds of advice. One of the biggest, just around the corner from Veneto, Panama’s biggest casino, is Expats Information Center sponsored by Panama Relocation Attorneys, a team of lawyers specializing in arranging residency papers and business and land purchase documents. Around 20 people a day walk through the doors of the center. They are mostly English speaking, mostly couples in their late fifties and sixties. “What people need is a place they can trust,” explains Gonzalo de la Guardia, director of the Panama Expat Center.

“Four years ago International Living put Panama on the map. Two years ago they did the same with Panama City,” said de la Guardia. In Panama City, 50 living towers are either finished or under construction. Another 70 are approved and will likely dot the Panama bay’s horizon. Still this energetic growth is chaotic and uncoordinated.

In the old part of town, Casco Antiguo, tourist police on bicycles do double duty as tourist guides, telling tourists where to find a museum or a restaurant. They speak English, are dressed in shorts and wear bike helmets. A far cry from the camouflage-wearing and berretta-carrying tourist police that ride around in tuck-tucks on Roatan roads.

Children play on the Casco Antiguo beach with the booming Panama City skyscrapers in the background.

Children play on the Casco Antiguo beach with the booming Panama City skyscrapers in the background.

Roatan to Panama:

You can make a small telephone book with a list of ex-Roatanians who have moved to Panama. Linda and Paul Roberts, who lived on a sail boat in Brick Bay, have moved to Bocas del Torro. Frank Canalli, developer of Sundancer, has moved to Panama City. Dennis Belvedere, frustrated with development on West End point, has moved to Panama’s Vulcan. Lisa and Mike Weiss, after living several years on Roatan’s north shore and growing fed-up with just as many robberies, have moved to Panama City. Real estate office owners: Port Royal’s Al and Janette Western and Bob and Liz Warring both have purchased property in Panama and spend some time there.

Not far behind are Mike Saunders, 51, and Susan Scott, residents of Brick Bay. They are in the process of selling their Brick Bay home after living there since 1998. “Lack of medical facilities and hot climate became more of an issue here,” says Mike. In December the couple took a two-week trip to Panama and haven’t looked back since. “As soon as we can get there we’re gone,” says Saunders, originally from Maine and a deck officer at a seismic exploration vessel.

For Scott, the hassles of Roatan’s daily life, such the electricity outages and neglected road system, grew too draining. “I am just tired of standing in line for four hours at the bank,” says Scott, 55, a retired editor and a volunteer at a Roatan veterinary clinic.

Pascal Accard, 50, and Lainie Cohen, 38, met on Roatan in 1996. Here they had two children and built a successful and efficient ecological resort in a then almost empty West Bay. Since then, especially after 2000, they have seen the island develop quickly. The couple became restless, frustrated and finally decided to leave Roatan for Panama. “We were very disappointed with the development on the island. I hope that at least my efforts of zoning West Bay didn’t fall flat the minute I left West Bay,” says Laine, who served as a secretary of the West Bay Association.

While they wait for their beachfront resort to sell, they surround themselves with a busy schedule of activities in Panama City. Laine is taking yoga classes, apkido, hung-fu, tai-chi and salsa dancing. Almost every weekend the couple drives to one of several national parks surrounding the city. “I am having a blast here,” says Laine, sitting in a hammock of her two bedroom La Cresta apartment overlooking the bay of Panama.

Catharine McAbe and Steve Helm are an example of a expat couple whose presence on Roatan brought positive, real change to the community. When they left for Panama in 2006 they also took their energy, enthusiasm and initiative. Catharine has been the main driver and catalyst for the creation of the French Harbour’s Library and Social Center. Steve, while still going back and forth to Los Angeles, has volunteered his time and effort in educating and SCUBA-certifying 76 local policemen.

They purchased their Roatan property in 1999 and eventually moved to the island in 2003. “We reluctantly left because of medical issues effecting Steven. … When the doctors said he could no longer dive, being surrounded by the incredible waters of the island was unbearable for him,” writes McAbe who owns a duplex in Panama City and a property in the Cerro Azul Mountains bordered by the Chagres National Park. “We arrived in Panama loaded down with surge protectors and dozens of candles. … We don’t need the surge protectors and only use the candles for a romantic evening a deux,” writes McAbe.

“Do we miss Roatan? You bet. But, are we thrilled with our new home and country,” writes Catharine, who takes advantage of the city’s rich cultural offerings: theater, international circus shows, etc. “What is better about Panama are the cultural opportunities, the first world medical services, and the incredible selection of gourmet foods and really good restaurants,” writes Catharine.

Island to Island:

A trickle of Bay Islands expats have moved from one Bay Island to another. After Hurricane Mitch Don Pearly and Helen Murphy, both managing businesses on Guanaja discovered new opportunities on Roatan. Pearly owns Trans Island Enterprises, a design-construction company. Murphy has a landscaping and plant nursery business.

Recently a newer trans-island migration of Roatan expats is directed towards Utila. Four Roatan transfers have settled in Utila’s East Harbor.

Back to US of A:

Dr. Ron Worley, founder of Punta Gorda’s Polo Galindo Clinic in 2002, has been living on and off Roatan since the 1990s. Only three years after founding the Punta Gorda medical clinic that was going to be his legacy, a labor dispute with a medical doctor who worked at the clinic tumbled it and its staff into a legal whirlpool. The clinic has never recovered. Combined with promised but unfulfilled government agreement to use the clinic to treat the local population, the situation has become a constant object of frustration for Dr. Worley.

In 2006, quietly and to the surprise of many, he sold his French Cay home and quietly moved back to the States. There was no party, no good byes; and for his work and vision, he certainly deserved all of that.

A number of foreign residents had to relocate off the archipelago due to lack of medical facilities here. In June, Larry Schlesser, a real estate professional with a successful practice, was diagnosed with an aneurism and advised to live within minutes of a hospital. Roatan is not that place, at least not right now. “I am surprised that retirees consider to retire here when we are so ill-equipped to take care of them [in emergency cases],” said Kandy Hyde, RN and a president of Littlest Angels Foundation, a nonprofit whose goals are to improve healthcare facilities on Roatan.

There are foreigners who have left Bay Islands and Honduras and who cannot come back for legal reasons. In the case of two American couples living in Sandy Bay, an order of capture and arrest was recently issued due to pressures of another American while they were away from the country. The situation prevents the two couples from returning to Honduras. While complicated, their case is by no means the only one in which Americans were forced to remain outside, or even extradited from, Honduras.

For all the foreigners who moved away there is a number of foreigners whom many people wish would leave. “Much of the havoc that the foreigners undergo is caused by other foreigners,” said Arlie Thompson, Bay Islands Governor. As strange as this sounds, a brief analysis by Bay Islands VOICE confirms this. In a vast majority of legal cases involving foreigners, other foreigners are a party to the problem.

Coming Back:

A key to contentment in the Bay Islands is the ability to accept and be comfortable with change. You also have to be able to accept that as time goes by, many people will come and go. Many friends you have made will leave.

While some of them make a slow, gradual transition, still keeping homes, slowly selling them or visiting Roatan from time to time, others have left and never looked back.

What is inspiring is that while no ex-Panama expats move to Bay Islands, some people who left Bay Islands for elsewhere do come back. One person who returned to Roatan after leaving for Copan is Rick Gilson, owner of West End Rick’s. Also, Drew and Harmony Storms, having traveled to New Zealand have also returned to Roatan to raise their daughter. “We just came back because of the social life,” says Drew, who recently began working as a realtor on the island. For Drew it was a hard to go into a 9 to 5 work schedule and begin the competition lifestyle all over again. [/private]

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