What’s one to do after surviving the dot-com bubble? For Charles Brewer ’81, who founded one of the most successful Internet service providers in the 1990s, the answer was: leave tech to construct towns from scratch.
His undertaking of the past decade has been planning and building a 1,200-acre pedestrianized town on the west coast of Costa Rica. The community, Las Catalinas, which is in Guanacaste, an area known for its beautiful beaches, has several hundred Mediterranean-style homes and some hotels nestled into the hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s an outgrowth of Brewer’s conviction that communities should be walkable and designed around the human rather than the automobile.
“It just made so much sense to me to have walkable cities. If you take the cars out, it’s amazing what happens,” he says.
Some of those amazing things: people get to know their neighbors, they’re more in tune with nature, their children can run around without worrying about cars. The philosophy of car-free Las Catalinas is to get outdoors to walk, hike, surf and bike. It makes people healthier and happier.
“The first part of every trip is on foot, for everybody. It’s in a beautiful, neighborly setting,” says Brewer. “It feels so natural to have pleasant daily interactions with people around you in a way that it doesn’t in most places.”
Brewer discovered the anti-urban-sprawl movement (“New Urbanism”) after leaving MindSpring Enterprises, the Internet service provider he founded. After planning a walkable neighborhood in Atlanta, he sought to create a slice of utopia on a larger scale. That search took him to Costa Rica.
The construction of the several hundred homes had its fair share of hardships. First, there was the financial crisis of 2008. Then, construction was halted for about one year because “no one in the country could get a tree-cutting permit.”
Yet pivoting from technology to construction was not a significant challenge for Brewer. For one thing, “I was never really a tech guy,” he says. “Part of my advantage at MindSpring was that I wasn’t. The other thousand ISPs were, and they didn’t understand what us normal people were going through.”
Both of his businesses, at their core, have a mission to promote more fulfilling, healthier lives. Even before deciding what the company that became MindSpring would sell or do, Brewer wrote a list of values for it. Those include, among others: “We require complete honesty and integrity in everything we do,” “We feel a sense of urgency on any matters related to our customers” and “Being a good businessperson does not mean being stuffy and boring.”
The same values live on in Las Catalinas—with one more: Be a positive influence in Costa Rica.
Foreign investment in Costa Rica land has been robust, even as the luxury property market has been slow to recover from the financial crisis, says Robert F. Davey, managing director for Costa Rica at Christie’s International Real Estate. With homes priced between $500,000 and $2 million, it’s almost all foreigners, rather than locals, who can afford to live in Las Catalinas. Detractors say that such development, however well-intentioned, causes gentrification and leads to a bifurcated society in which locals mainly serve as workers to foreign bosses.
“That’s exactly what we don’t want,” Brewer says. “We don’t want to be exclusive—we want to be inclusive! We talk about this very explicitly, and often, inside our company.” One way Las Catalinas does this is by being open, literally, to everyone. It’s not a gated or fenced-in community. Unlike other luxury resorts in the Caribbean, the hiking trails, beaches and restaurants can be used by everyone, not just paying tourists.
A less weighty issue taking up Brewer’s time at the moment is how to persuade those around him to enjoy those hiking trails at the best time of day: dawn. He has “tried valiantly” to set up a Las Catalinas time zone that is two hours ahead of everywhere else, so people could unwittingly start their days earlier.
But still the town slept.
“The vast majority of people won’t do it—they’ll say ‘I’m on vacation!’” Brewer says. “But I try my hardest to get them up at the beginning of the day. Because it’s totally the right thing to do.”
Zheng is a freelance writer and former Wall Street Journal reporter. She wrote about young entrepreneurs in China for the Winter/Spring 2018 issue of Amherst magazine.