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Make an offer: a wealthy landowner in Costa Rica says developers will bet on medical tourism

Patricia Nazario
Latin Trade

January 1, 2005

In his 70s, Jim Sparrow is a slender man with a receding hairline. He stands at six feet tall, and his hazel eyes peer over the top of his silver-rimmed glasses as he speaks. He's enthusiastic, and when he talks about Puerto Pedregosa, he sounds like a kid at Christmas.

Puerto Pedregosa is a US$225 million real-estate development project in Guanacaste, a province on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. When developed, it will be a medical-destination resort that will contain a state-of-the-art hospital, a medical university, first-class hotels and timeshare condominiums. Sparrow bought the 188 hectares of property in the early 1970s for $16 million. Today he wants to sell it for $32 million, although he claims its appraised value is four times more.

"We get offers," says Sparrow, "and look more at development plans than money," although he would not reveal the identity of the potential developers. His long-time female companion, Star Cunningham, sits by his side and finishes his sentences. "We get to double our money and investors feel like they're getting a good deal," says Cunningham. "Besides, if it works out, every hotel and small business will be a success."

The couple moved to Costa Rica from Canada a decade ago to develop the idea. Today they live in the two-bedroom presidential suite of a modest hotel in San Jose. Their office and assistant are across the hall. That was Sparrow's idea of retiring, says Cunningham.

The couple, now 20 years together, call each other soul mates. They're both from western Canada: Cunningham from Central Alberta and Sparrow from Edmonton. He's one of four boys from a working-class family. His parents raised grain and livestock on a 65-hectare farm 80 kilometers outside of town. Sparrow says times then were tough. Growing up, they had no running water. His mother worked as a nurse to make extra money, and horses were their only mode of transportation. "My neighbor got a tractor," says Sparrow, "so that made me want to work harder to buy my father one."

At 15, he started skipping school to work on oil rigs to make some money to help out the family. At first, he told his father he was earning the bucks playing poker. But eventually the truth came out: Sparrow confessed he liked working on the rigs, playing cards and then going to school, in that order. Inevitably, he dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and started pulling double shifts on the rigs.

"They learned me one thing," says Sparrow. "Keep your head down, ass up and don't argue until you know what you're doing, eh!"

Sparrow learned the oil industry from the ground up. He made money and invested it wisely, he says. Eventually he became a very prominent businessman in Canada and the United States, working for the company he founded, Sparrow Industries, a supplier for the oil and gas industry. He brags about never having drilled a dry hole and speaks modestly about the other business ventures that multiplied his wealth, including agriculture and real-estate developments. He's a jokester at heart who loves eating dessert first, but he gets serious whenever he talks about protecting the environment and personal safety. A lesson, Sparrow says, he doesn't take lightly.

"I went to an oil rig and guys on there had died the night before," said Sparrow. "I was only 16 years old. That changed me forever and now it's safety first."

Safety and the environment took top priority for Sparrow Industries as they do for the Puerto Pedregosa project. The couple wants to preserve the areas natural, lush landscape, encourage local folkloric traditions and create new jobs for the people living in the nearby town of Matapalo, three kilometers from the site. The couple affectionately refers to it as the forgotten village. Matapalo's development is important because its 14,000 residents will be the main labor pool for future Puerto Pedregosa employees.

"The level of careers and optimism for small businesses is a big goal," says Cunningham. "Five-star luxury provides careers for folks. It creates a need for top-quality tomatoes, lettuce, rice," she says. The project Hill help Costa Ricans rise to a new level of agriculture, Sparrow says, so it's a win-win situation.

Giving back. The couple has supplied dozens of instruments for Matapalo's music school, developed a computer center and invested thousands of dollars to create a public library. The contributions are considered business expenses, but it's an effort of which Sparrow and Cunningham are especially proud.

Sparrow calls Puerto Pedregosa his last big project. He is dedicating it to his younger brother, Donny, who was killed in a car accident eight years ago. That is the reason, he says, it has taken so long to get the project off the ground. For years, the threesome waited for the right time to start the project. After Donny's death, Sparrow nearly walked away. But Cunningham stuck by his side and she's helping this pioneer blaze through what Sparrow calls his final frontier.

Copyright 2005 Freedom Magazines, Inc.

Note: The above information is not to be used for any other purpose other than private study, research, criticism or review. Thank you.

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