Proposed Limon International Airport in Matina, Costa Rica

Did the MEL Group purposely choose the same name as the aviation giant out of Suffolk U.K. or was the decision based solely based on their initials? 

– Kimberly Beck, Matina Limon Costa Rica

Promoters of a $700 million international airport in Limón said they had difficulty generating interest under the Laura Chinchilla government, but now the Solís administration appears to favor the proposal. The promoters said this when they met last week with members of the Matina chamber of commerce in the canton’s municipal office, to introduce a proposed international airport.

Representing the MEL Group was Enzest Brown, project engineer. The company name reflects the first names of the principal partners, and the company is not related to the aviation company The MEL Group with headquarters in Suffolk, United Kingdom.

Other executives of the firm are Lowell McLean, marketing director and Limón resident, and Michael Adden, president of MEL Group.  Adden was born in Limón and lives in Miami, Florida.

The plan for an international airport in Limón was born in 2011 and subsequently introduced to the second vice president of Costa Rica President Chinchilla’s administration, Luis Liberman.  Adden said he followed up this meeting with visits to other agencies and ministries, but finally got a resounding, ‘We are not interested.’”

Not dissuaded, MEL Group met with the current President Luis Guillermo Solís along with the minister of Transportation, Carlos Segnini, in February. The president suggested the group meet yet again with the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo, and this time the welcome was warmer, said the executives.

Adden says the $700 million required to construct the Limón international airport and the project is well-received by primary investors, Tenet Financial Corp, Texas, and ACO Investment Group, New York. Yet, no official deal has been inked because the two primary investors remain concerned about infrastructure in the Limón area.

Adden and Brown both compare their Caribbean-based investment opportunity to the Daniel Oduber International airport in Guanacaste. 

A new airport may be the only similarity to the Limón Caribbean-based airport project. The world famous Pacific tourist region sports several internationally owned, high-end eco-resorts and mega hotels plus several large projects underway and completed to serve the marketing demographic of expat luxury living communities. 

In comparison, Matina on the Caribbean is a poverty stricken banana town. The only work available for the majority of 40,000 inhabitants is in the banana fields. The monthly average wage is $400. There are no existing large resorts and no influx of well-heeled foreigners with substantial cash. 

Limón is the poorest province of Costa Rica. While Limón does the heavy lifting for Costa Rica’s imports and exports, the tax revenues primarily directly flow into the central government located in San Jose instead of the local communities in the region.However, what Matina has as a plus is the proximity to the Refinadora Costarricense de Petróleo S.A., the government petroleum monopoly. Fuel transportation is expensive for airlines. A possible future site of the Limón airport nearby is an economic incentive for airlines serving an international airport.

In addition, a feasibility study is underway for a possible $1.5 billion Chinese-funded refinery upgrade that promises to produce bio and green fuels. Matina is also a stone’s throw from the new $1 billion APM container facility in Moín, which is expected to be complete in 2018. 

In late March, a list of requirements provided by the MEL Group was introduced to the government. The list included the completion of the Ruta 32 widening project, installation of  sufficient electricity and fiber optic infrastructure and business related courses to be added to the current school curriculum in the region.

Although The MEP Group presented the plan to a crowd in Limón Centro last year,  last week marks the first time an official from MEL Group visited Matina, the proposed official site of the new airport.

Brown, MEL’s project engineer, presented Matina’s newly formed chamber of commerce the same Powerpoint presentation he shared with President Solis.The presentation included MEL’s airport plans, workforce requirements and organizational charts of proposed parties involved.

The expected number of personnel with an advanced education level for the airport includes 2,500 direct jobs, 1,500 construction, and 8,000 indirect jobs. Such employment is not available in Matina or in nearby Limón Centro. Most residents are plantation workers with limited access to proper education especially in written business English and high-tech engineering and other airport related employment.

Brown told the chamber membership MEL is not trying to compete with the Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose.  The Limón airport will specifically benefit Asian, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern foreign passenger traffic along with air cargo services. Statistics provided from the tourism institute and the Dirección General de Migración show current traffic from these areas is only 2.6 percent of the Alajuela airport’s total, the executive said.
“June 2016 is when we plan to begin executing feasibility studies, environmental studies, and deploy our marketing teams”  said MEL’s Adder.

There are two possible building sites in Matina. They sit back-to-back with one having direct access to Ruta 32, the main route going north to Nicaragua and west to San José. Both possible airport sites include an existing banana plantation owned by the China-based Acon Group. Adden says “There have been no conversations between MEL Group and the Acon Group, as of yet.’”

Brown’s presentation at the chamber showed negotiations are currently underway with American, Frontier, Southwest, and others.  COPA Airlines, a passenger and air cargo company, is involved in outreach by MEL. Projected numbers for 2020 include 2.5 million people using the airport plus 110,000 tons of cargo.

MEL’s proposed Limón international airport will include 12 hangars, two runways. One would be 4.5 kilometers for jumbo jets. A second smaller runway would handle overflow and cargo storage.  MEL Group will open two offices, if all goes as projected and planned. One will be in San José. The other will be on the Matina site.

airport limon

Enzest Brown of MEL Group

banana road

Proposed site of Limon International Airport

mule banana

A Banana worker near the proposed site.

This story originally appeared in A.M. Costa Rica, an online news source, on April 21st, 2015.

My thanks to Bonnie for helping me edit.

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