A well-prepared and willing human resource and a cordial attitude of self-sufficiency have driven the development of this city, according to its residents.
Residents of La Villa de Los Santos migrated to the north bank of La Villa River and founded the community of Chitre in 1848, later to become the capital of the province of Herrera.
Here, the community found the best site for port facilities, from whence agricultural products produced in the region could be shipped to Panama City.
Later, with the initiation of Panama Canal operations, much of the population of the country’s interior migrated to the capital in search of work opportunities, usually deciding to take up residence there.
Today the phenomenon is reversing. Now the inhabitants of the metropolis look to the province as the ideal place to retire after many years of hard work, and others are looking towards this region as an investment opportunity.
Despite the changes, agricultural production continued to be the main economic activity in the Azuero Peninsula, and parents sent their children to study in Panama City or abroad.
But unlike other provinces, smallholding farming prevailed in Herrera and Los Santos, which for decades helped to sustain agricultural activity while the locals maintained regional customs.
”Each person owned their own source of production,” says Benito Suarez, son of a Chitrean mother and a resident of this city since 1967.
President of Arcillas de Chitre and Arcitec, Suarez says that the city’s strategic location and activities, together with the vision of its first settlers focused on a culture of human warmth and solidarity – which still prevails – is what has made Chitre so attractive today.
Chitreans are normally self-sufficient when looking for answers to their needs, and for generations its citizens have left to become professionals and then returned to their homeland, Suarez claims.
Similarly, Sebastián Peralta finds that “the strength of Chitre is its helpful and friendly people. Here there are no differences between economic classes, since we are all striving for the same goal: to improve Chitre. “
Their efforts speak for themselves. Before the government bulldozers arrived, the city’s inhabitants had already established their own water and electric power systems. The construction of the sports stadium and the exterior church lighting, for example, also came about through community initiatives, says Peralta.
Activities that have taken the greatest hold are property development, trade and tourism.
Trained as a civil engineer, Peralta has been president of the Association of Pork Producers of Panama and President of the Cattlemen’s Association of Panama. Currently, in addition to farming, he heads the Díaz Peralta real estate company, which is developing the Jesus Nazareno project in the district of Llano Bonito, with 220 medium-income homes.
Another businessman in the region who has also farmed cattle and is now involved in real estate is Eduardo Perez, who develops housing projects and commercial locations.
Perez says that the need for housing in general has grown and “the new subdivisions that are built are immediately occupied.”
He affirms that the new businesses that have sprung up in Chitre have generated new jobs, which has helped more Chitreans aspire to buying a home, while the demand created by people from the capital and foreigners has encouraged higher-end developments.
The businessman recognizes the truth in the saying that “in the city of Chitre, no one is a stranger”, since it welcomes visitors cordially and “life is better” than in other parts of the country. Hence, more and more people want a house here.
According to the 2010 National Census, Chitre is one of the cities with the highest income levels. The average monthly income per household is $ 900, compared to other provincial capitals such as Penonomé ($ 842), David ($ 733), Las Tablas ($ 611) or Veraguas ($ 866), for example.
According to Olier Avila, director of municipal engineering for the municipality of Chitre, “the city has had an economic boom in recent years due to the promotion of state and private projects in the commercial, residential and industrial sectors.”
Among the state projects, he mentions the addition of a hemodialysis unit at the Nelson Gustavo Collado hospital at a cost of $ 2 million, the expansion of the water treatment plant and sewer system at a cost of $ 45 million, and the widening of the Divisa-Chitre highway at a cost of $ 109 million.
He also mentions other projects in the making, including a wholesale food market which would cost around $ 27 million. And according Avila, efforts are being made for the Chitre Airport to start functioning soon.
Among the private projects he mentions are the Azuero hotel, which opened last year, the La Esperanza hotel, and the Cubitá project costing approximately 22 million dollars. And without giving more details, he assures that two other developments of this type are under construction and three are under study.
Like the hotels, housing projects are also growing. There are a total of about 15 housing developments under construction, most of them concentrated in Monagrillo and La Arena.
Businesses are also playing their role in this growth. Currently, about 10 commercial projects are underway.
Growth in construction is reflected in the income of the Municipality of Chitre. In November 2012, taxes paid to the municipality for construction work exceeded one million dollars .
Cubitá, a residential and hotel project developed by the real estate company of the same name and backed by the Wyndham Grand chain, is one of the projects being developed in the district and is focused on a high-income market.
Stefany Morrison, project sales manager, acknowledges that after evaluating the provincial capitals throughout the country, investors determined that Chitre’s characteristics were suited to the nature of the project.
With 70% of the project sold, Morrison says its main buyers are from the capital and abroad, from countries such as Poland, Argentina, Canada, USA, Switzerland and China.
Due to projects like this and others, Benito Suarez says that the growth in Chitre’s construction sector has quintupled in the past 10-15 years.
Former President of the Chamber of Commerce and the Panamanian Association of Business Executives (Apede) of Chitre, Suarez says the greatest part of the roof tiles, floor tiles, ornamental blocks and building blocks produced by his company are purchased for beach projects and constructions in the capital city, while a smaller percentage is for projects in the capital of the province of Herrera.
Currently, he is analyzing the possibility of expanding and upgrading of his company – Arcillas de Chitre – as well as the potential for exporting his products.
Meanwhile, Ricardo Moreno, architect for the company Interplanos, says the work of many years has boosted confidence in the population and the local market. “People are staying here, and this helps to strengthen investment. In addition, there is immediate job creation, ” he affirms.
For him, the best proof of this is that newly established merchants have tripled their sales compared to the same branches in other provinces.
His company has managed projects such as Hotel Guayacanes, Plaza Azuero, the Dona Sara Shopping Center and the Nueva Union Cooperative. He also designs one or two residential projects each year.
Between honorable mentions and awards, Moreno has earned 10 national recognitions for design and architecture projects, stating that “you don’t have to be in Panama City to achieve this.”
But apart from region’s economic vitality, there is something that worries Moreno. For him, it is urgent to that the work on the Divisa-Las Tablas highway be completed in order not to affect the commercial and the agricultural sectors, which require this road to transport their products.
Moreover, director of municipal engineering Olier Avila asserts that the land use plan for Chitre will be approved during the first quarter of this year, establishing the guidelines for the development of the city, while options are also being considered with regard to the city dump.
Sebastian Peralta indicates that for years, Chitre has been the commercial center of the region. Practicing specialists who have returned after their receiving their training to establish their private clinics has also enabled Chitre to gain ground in the area of medical services, both in the country and elsewhere, he says.
Other economic sectors have also been emerging in response to what Chitre offers, including universities, banks, shops and tourist amenities that are continually integrating themselves into the market.
Peralta explained that although the agricultural sector is “weak”, the producers remain committed to “producing food for our city and the rest of the country” and warns that “if a producer is weakened, marketing will decrease” in the region.
He also points to fishing and seafood exports and other activities that contribute to the economy of the region.
Regarding trade, Rigoberto Saez, owner of Saez Furniture , says that since mid-2011, the sale of his merchandise has increased between 20% and 30%. “I’ve been here 30 years and never seen growth like this before,” he states.
Sáez remains optimistic about these changes, arguing that competitors bring more customers, and it’s up to the locals to prepare themselves in order to stay in the market.
Coming from a merchant family engaged in the manufacture of furniture in the Aguabuena region of Los Santos, he has continued as a manufacturer and distributor of wooden furniture which is, according to Saez, well positioned in the country. “I don’t see any trauma with the arrival of more people. To those who want to come, I say come,” states Saez regarding the arrival of investors from foreign countries and other parts of Panama.
The story of Adelaide Sosa and Mario Morin, owner of Ebenezer Pizzeria and Restaurant, is somewhat different because they came to Chitre from Canada three years ago. She a Chitrean and he a Canadian, they decided to settle here with their children.
Their initial intention was to work in the construction area, as they have experience in the field, but first they decided to open a restaurant.
According to Sosa, they were attracted by Panama’s educational and family systems, by feeling more at peace in their daily lives, and by seeing in Chitre a city with high growth potential, although they say it is essential to establish clear rules for investors.
Morin likes to live “without snow or cold. I’m a Chitrean-Canadian, ” he says with a smile.
Another activity that is representative of the city is its radio stations: Radio Reforma – the oldest, established in 1958 -, Estéreo Presidente and Hola Panamá.
Brigitte de Aparicio, auditor for the group in which Radio Reforma has formed a part for 16 years, said that this family business started by Pedro Solis maintains its leadership in the region, with Jurado del Pueblo (the “People’s Jury”), a community outreach program, being one of its biggest hits since 1965.
Aparicio stresses that every business that comes to the city and wants to promote itself finds it almost mandatory to turn to this medium.
Meanwhile, Mirleydi Muñoz, originally from Chiriqui and owner of Chitre-based Qtarras Tours, says that in the Azuero region she found an interesting tourism offer related to traditions and the area’s great natural beauty.
Muñoz has lived in Chitre for nine years and has seen growth in several sectors.
When the dry season arrives, Panamanian and foreign tourists come in equal numbers, and are attracted to the islands of Colón, Coiba and Iguana, as well as the traditional festivities of each region.
Another experience is that of Marcelino Rodriguez and Miguel Antonio Sanchez, fishermen in Boca Parita, an activity that allows thousands of residents of Monagrillo, Chitre and Parita to generate income.
Each resident has their own story to tell, and even though the temperatures rise during the dry season, the locals roll up their sleeves to get to work, and always have a smile to greet those who are coming for the first time to the city that grows of its own accord.
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