Sunday, June 21, 2009

Straight Talk About Puerto Penasco, Mexico

Let's be real. The city of Puerto Penasco is not beautiful. I'm not sure that it could even be described as "charming" or "quaint". As a young city (less than 100 years old) it lacks any of the glamour and cachet of Mexico's colonial history and architecture. Nor is it "picturesque" in the same way as more established coastal destinations such as Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta or Cozumel. And it is definitely not "tropical" in appearance, surrounded as it is by one of the driest desert areas in North America. Its streets are dusty, its architecture mostly unimpressive, its amenities and services scattered and its shopping uninspiring.

And a pet peeve of mine: As of 2005, the municipality had a total population of 44,875, so all you promoters who insist on calling it a "village" please stop. That term implies tinyness and "quaintness", and as I've already noted Puerto Penasco ain't quaint.

But before you all get your knickers in a bunch over any perceived insult to Rocky Point, take a deep breath and read on because the drawbacks to the place are also positives.

How so? I'm glad you asked. It is because the town's young age and relative lack of a historical core, which means that Rocky Point is in a position to determine what it wants to be when it grows up. Does it want to be a bedroom community to Arizona, full of weekend warrior investors who have no intention of living in the fancy condos they've purchased? A retirement community for aging gringo baby boomers? A Spring Break destination? A full fledged tourist community with upscale hotels and timeshares? Does it want to look like the stereotype of a Mexican city with faux colonial buildings, or does it want to go all modern with lots of steel and glass and highrises-- or some kind of combination? All of the above?

Especially if you live in the Southwestern USA, it's been difficult to resist the hype that has been spread about Puerto Penasco during the last several years. Most of the promotional materials, both print and online, primarily show magnificent photos of the growth in the Sandy Beach area northwest of town. Indeed, the huge condo developments that have risen there in the last half dozen years are pretty impressive, and they are the first glimpse you'll get of Rocky Point as you approach town from the Arizona border. You can see them from as far out as 10 or more miles.

But Sandy Beach is not Rocky Point. Though the city itself has experienced a boom, it is still a dusty, ordinary little Mexican beach town struggling to deal with its sudden growth and the change from a fishing-based economy to a tourism-based economy. The photo above, which shows an overview of the Mirador, is pretty much what most of the city of Rocky Point looks like.

Puerto Penasco started out as a fishing and shrimping port, and like Topsy it just "growed". The oldest parts of town are the Malecon area of Old Port and the El Mirador section, locally called simply "the Mirador". Both areas are currently in the process of being "redeveloped", which can be described as "spruced up" or "ruined", depending on your point of view.

The vision of recent developers seems to be all for turning the beachfront area of the Mirador into modern-looking high rises, as evidenced by the Los Corales project (See Omega Commercial Finance Receives Bank Commitment for Over $50 Million) and the La Perla del Mar, which promoted itself as Puerto Peñasco's first in-town luxury high-rise resort before the financial crunch brought its construction to a halt.

Developer Larry Large's Suenos del Mar project, a 102± acre tract with 100 ft. of beachfront at Playa Mirador, was drawn up as a comprehensive, master-planned community, envisioning a variety of projects: residential homes, condominium projects, hotels, commercial centers and more. This kind of development would have made a major impact on what is now the main "entertainment" district in town, but the financial meltdown seems to have put the screws to this development, too. The property is currently for sale at a listing price of $48 million; an attempt to sell it at auction on June 4, 2009 brought no takers.

Many long-time aficionados of Rocky Point hate to see any of that kind of development within the city, especially in the Mirador. They like it little and funky, as it has always been. But allowing unbridled development of luxury condos, hotels and retail along the northern and southern corridors outside of town while ignoring the town itself presents dangers to the city. It could result in Rocky Point becoming a sort of "slum" center, something that is not attractive to tourists and would not allow modernization in a way that would be truly beneficial to the local populace. One only needs to look at the difference between the Cancun Hotel Zone and Cancun City to get an idea of how negative that could be. To me, the best option would be to develop it with a mix of projects that would be attractive and beneficial to both the local Mexican population and to visitors and potential retirees, not just for luxury-seeking gringos.

So it seems that development of tourist facilities, hotels and housing development within the city itself is important for its future health and well being if it wants to stay the kind of place where people actually enjoy living. The question is, what kind of development will the city fathers choose? Or will they allow it to continue to "just grow" like Topsy?

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