Casinos dominate plan for solar farm in Guanacaste

A massive Guanacaste solar energy project, involving Frank Biden, the brother of the U.S. vice president and promoted as being a green development, will be anchored by three casinos that would take most of the budget.

A.M. Costa Rica has also learned that developers planned to finance that vast majority of the near-billion-dollar project with Chinese money — plans that they say recently changed.

Until now, the development had been promoted mostly as an elite residential project with a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and a solar-powered energy farm. However, the actual budget allocates 72 percent to hotels and casinos, according to a Web page published by the developer, Sun Fund Americas.

Majority funding for the massive development touting hotel casinos, a country club, and a solar farm was once slated to come from a Chinese construction firm but is now expected from a U.S. casino developer, said Sun Fund President Craig S. Williamson Tuesday..

Williamson and his partner, Biden, head the operation that has remained largely stuck in neutral since its 2009 unveiling. Now funding is supposed to be spearheaded by Delta Blues Holdings LLC and its CEO Charles Preiser.

“Preiser has $400 million to invest and a $400 million matching line of credit,” said Williamson in a phone interview Tuesday.

Sun Fund’s affiliated Web sites – listed under the names Guanacaste Country Club, Sun Fund Americas, and Virtus One – have been erratic in operation and this week were not functioning. Williamson said his Web sites are currently undergoing redesign in anticipation of a synced relaunching.

Chinese connection

Plans available as recently as last week in a Q&A on the Virtus One Web site detailed that up to 85 percent of the estimated $921 million budget for the Guanacaste Country Club was expected to come from Beijing Construction Engineering Co. Williamson said that developers have since moved on from the Chinese backing.

“Maybe in another country, but not in Costa Rica,” he said Tuesday evening of involvements with the Chinese firm. “For the template of this project model, we want this to be all U.S.-sponsored.”

This change marks a removal of nearly $750 million from the project. Figures taken from the Web site show that hotels and three casinos were to receive nearly five times more investment funds than the country club or solar farm.

Officials from Beijing Construction Engineering Co. have ties with the world’s largest bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, according to a March report from China Daily.

Beijing has historically limited its gambling investments to the domestic Macau area, which has fallen under notoriety for its penchant in attracting money laundering hidden from the nation’s tight currency controls.

The familiar name

The amount of real estate development experience that Biden has is still uncertain. Records show he was licensed to sell real estate in Florida in 2000. Though the license expired in 2004, it is still listed as active.

According to an Accurint report provided by the
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Biden filed for bankruptcy in 1994 and faced a Delaware state tax lien in 1997 for the sum of $61,528. Tax problems followed him into later years and in 2009 he was slapped with another lien for $32,500.

Biden has been active in involving the American Association of Retired Persons to gain member interest in the development, according to Williamson. He was also responsible for reaching an agreement in 2009 with Nicklaus Design in securing a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course. Last month a representative from Nicklaus Design said the company was still waiting on the funding before it began course construction.

Vice President Biden is no stranger to casinos. Last June, Mike Godfrey of Tax-News reported that the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda met directly with Joe Biden in his Washington, D.C. office last May to specifically discuss an online gambling dispute between the United States and the Caribbean islands. The vice president’s son at one time lobbied for casino interests.

Williamson said last month that no lots or properties have been sold on the land because directors are waiting to amp up marketing in the coming weeks. Information for pre-development packages had been listed on Guanacaste Country Club Web site.

Although the Web sites still are down, there is a Guanacaste Country Club Facebook Page.

Casino money

Preiser began in the gaming industry in the 80s and has been heavily involved with the casino industry in Mississippi since Delta Blue’s founding 2003. However, news reports say that some of the casino projects have never taken off.

A powerpoint made by Delta Blues for presentation to Sun Fund representatives promises the creation of 1,185 direct jobs and nearly 10,000 indirect jobs as a result of the Guanacaste project. Preiser said he has been working with Williamson and Biden on this plan for the past several months.

“Delta is responsible for master planning and co-development for a commercial and support development,” said Preiser via email.

Guanacaste is the nation’s least populated province with 327,000 residents, according to the 2011 census.

About 63,000 live in Liberia some 10 minutes from the project. Liberia has an international airport.

Williamson and Biden, who have been friends of 15 years according to Biden, were formerly a part of ERA Real Estate in Latin America.

By Michael Krumholtz
and Lou Kilzer
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

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