ARCHITECTURE OF HAPPINESS

Panama 2014 | REAL ESTATE & CONSTRUCTION | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to José Manuel Bern, Vice-President of Empresas Bern, on growth in the construction sector, recent major projects, and trends in Panamanian real estate.

José Manuel Bern
BIOGRAPHY
José Manuel Bern is Vice-President of Empresas Bern.

What have been the most important projects for the company in recent years?

Miramar has always been one of our favorite projects. It is a very emblematic location in the center of the bay on Balboa Avenue. The marina and hotel, being part of the condominium complex, has always been a unique scheme. It was ahead of its time 15 years ago, and still today it is one of the prime residential areas in Panama. President Varela himself lives there. For the future, I envisage the Westin and the Intercontinental in Playa Bonita also becoming important projects for us. Gamboa is also a unique project that we always like to refer to at the center of the Panama Canal. It is not our largest project, but certainly one of the more special ones.

What is the situation of the Town Center project?

The Town Center in Costa del Este is currently at the foundation stage. We are expecting to open by July 2017, and that includes not only the retail area (which is crucial), but also the clinics and hospital as well as the multi-use offices. It is going to be radically different from anything else on offer in Panama and, in fact, in Latin America. We are in that project with the architectural firm RTKL, which is well known worldwide for such multi-use facility projects. For us it is going to be a highly emblematic project—very complete. It is part of our commitment to the area of Costa del Este, where most of our projects are located.

How would you describe the state of the real estate sector in Panama and its key trends?

There is a great flexibility in Panama in terms of offering solutions for hotels, apartments, and office space. There are plenty of options in office space and hotels and apartments to house employees, and a great capacity in Panama's private sector to produce solutions. What's more there is a clear trend towards green certification. Most of the office buildings today feature environmental elements such as special air-conditioning systems, double-glaze windows, and so on. International companies are going to demand certain features in terms of energy savings and light safety. Those international standards cannot be ignored if one is to build a successful project. We like to differentiate our projects from the competition in terms of their location, quality, and available amenities.

What drove the 29% growth of the construction sector last year?

Certainly, a lot of it had to do with the culmination of public projects running up to the elections. I think that is going to free up some of the human capital that we require to bring projects forward. It's something to embrace when you need to increase wages to obtain better quality personnel. Panama is a relatively small economy, and we have certain restrictions regarding the importation of labor. You can basically only use local labor for construction. This raises the general economic level of our workers, which is positive. People used to wonder whether Panama would become the Dubai of Latin America, but we didn't think so. What you see in fact is the individual economic decisions of many people. Dubai brings labor in from India and Pakistan and the cost of values compared to the value of properties tends to be in the 5% to 8% range. In Panama, our cost of labor is about 30% of the value of the property, which gives us a good social foundation. The benefits are being distributed to the members of Panamanian society. Construction is one of the activities that has the highest economic contribution. Everything is basically done domestically, which will prove to be crucial going forward.