SAN JUAN DEL SUR – Mayor Jorge Sánchez, a lifelong Sandinista, says he guarantees a smooth transition as he takes the reins of this southern Pacific coastal boomtown that has led Nicaragua’s tourism and real estate growth over the past four years.
Not only did Sánchez win the November mayoral election in San Juan del Sur, a municipality that has voted Sandinista for the past three decades, but his party retained its majority in the city council with five seats.
The mustachioed mayor, whose Nov. 9, 2008 electoral victory was tainted with llegations of fraud, insists his triumph at the poll proves San Juaneños were happy with the way outgoing Sandinista mayor Eduardo Holmann sat in the mayor’s seat. Sánchez says he’ll carry on his predecessor’s legacy, albeit in his own, perhaps more congenial, style.
“Everyone has their own style,” said Sánchez, 47, insisting he likes to be closer to the pueblo than his predecessor was. “But our objectives coincide. We’ll pick up where projects were left off. And we’ll maintain close relations with national and foreign investors, because there are big investments being made.”
Sánchez recently sat down with The Nica Times– at the mayor’s office in San Juan to lay out some of his plans to maintain stability and growth in his burgeoning municipality.
He says he’ll prioritize road construction and maintenance – supporting Holmann in his push to construct the scenic coastal highway to directly connect San Juan del Sur with Costa Rica – and will focus on maintaining the municipality’s environmental friendliness.
Over the next four years, Sánchez will oversee multimillion-dollar tourism and real estate projects in San Juan, where increasingly upscale developments have been spreading from the bay into the surrounding hilltops and along dirt roads that parallel the pristine beaches to the north and south of this oncesleepy fishing town.
He insists the allegations that he won the mayor’s seat by fraudulent means won’t affect the investment climate in town.
“All the investors know I won cleanly. The victory was normal, like always,” he said, leaning back comfortably in his new mayor’s chair.
Mayor Sánchez says one of his goals for this year is to start up a turtle egg protection plan, inspired by a Costa Rican program, in which residents will protect turtle eggs from poachers and predators and potentially sell a portion of those eggs to create income for local residents.
Environmentalists have been recording dwindling populations of most species of sea turtles that nest on Nicaragua’s Pacific beaches (NT, Dec. 12, 2008).
Sánchez attributes the dwindling populations to environmentally unfriendly culture and economics – poor people poach because they need income, he said.
“We want to take advantage of that so the community can eat or sell the eggs or do whatever they can with them,” Sánchez said.
He also wants to complete the malecón (boardwalk) project along San JuanBay this year and has been in talks with the Nicaraguan Port Authority (EPN) to convert two dingy warehouses overlooking the bay into a commercial center where local artisans can sell their handicrafts to tourists arriving on cruise ships.
With the highly anticipated road between La Virgen and San Juan having been inaugurated last December in a ceremony attended by President Daniel Ortega, Sánchez is looking forward to completing an even more longed-for road project: the , or
He says former Mayor Eduardo Holmann, who has made the coastal road project his personal one, is seeking a bidder to construct the 34-kilometer highway. The scenic highway would give tourists an alternative route to get to San Juan from northwestern Costa Rica.
Sánchez explained that Holmann tossed out the old design for the highway for being too expensive and is in the process of redesigning the highway project and seeking out a potential builder, while continuing to seek financing from the World Bank and Central American Bank for Economic Integration.
One of Sánchez’s top campaign promises was to get San Juan its own road maintenance and construction equipment, a campaign promise that was also made by previous mayor Holmann, but which never came to fruition despite Holmann’s lobbying efforts with the central government.
“Road maintenance will be my main project to stimulate investment,” he said, adding that he plans to oversee the construction of the bridge that leads to Maderas and Marsella beaches to the north of town, as well as a bridge over the La Flor River before the rainy season begins in May.
Sánchez will also oversee a three-year, $16 million project that is partly funded by the Spanish government to pipe water into town from Lake Cocibolca to supply the growing demand for potable water and water for sewage services.
A former baseball player and manager, Sánchez was the Sandinista’s party secretary in San Juan del Sur during the 1990s and managed a now defunct lakeside restaurant in La Virgen. Last year he opened the new Hotel Gabymar, located in the mountains between Playa Remanso and San Juan del Sur, where he now lives, having moved from his humble abode at the foot of the lavish hillside Pelican Eyes development where he lived before having officially won the mayor’s seat.
He is currently coordinating with San Juan police to launch the “Plan Verano” – or summer security plan – to maintain public safety during the high season and particularly during Holy Week in April, when tens of thousands of Nicaraguans and international tourists descend upon San Juan for a raucous week of partying.
Sánchez says he will seek to secure stability for investors in the face of a global economic downturn.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has said the downturn will likely grind growth to a near halt in Central America, but won’t necessarily cause a recession.
The San Juan municipality, which last year built a swanky new two-story municipal building on the outskirts of town, is one of the more financially solvent municipalities in Nicaragua, but will likely face shrinking coffers if the economic downturn scares off investors, Sánchez said.
“We will have to keep giving people the confidence that this mayor is here to encourage investment in San Juan del Sur,” he said.