Panama’s real estate market may have slowed and its investment grade may have been demoted, but in early 2010, attention is gaining for a new niche of Panama businessmen: a group calling themselves alternative entrepreneurs located in Panama’s old quarter Casco Viejo who, like the neighborhood’s traditional strain of businessmen, are merging creativity and market forces to earn a buck, and in some cases a whole lot more.
“I helped park like, sixty cars last night,” said Andy, a wiry and energetic self-proclaimed parking attaché who’s market, between third and fifth streets on Avenida Central, has blossomed over the years.
“This night five years ago, maybe I would help park…maybe…three cars and wash, like, one or two? But now…chucha…I can’t keep my feet moving fast enough that’s how many cars I have.”
Restaurant profits and hotel occupancy numbers have surely risen in Casco’s recent past due, not only to the increase in tourism to Panama in general, but an increased appreciation for historical destinations and community building. But eclipsing the realm of conventional business have been the neighborhood’s alternative entrepreneurs who have learned just as keenly to adapt to the market.
A young-looking man at the age of sixty, Enrique’s mission statement targets on “anything that a man can do with two feet.” When asked if his profits had increased with Panama’s development boom, Enrique cited not only increased tourism foot traffic but also a new emerging sector he calls “yay yays,” or well-to-do Panamanians in oversized SUVs that once stayed far away from Casco Viejo.
“Yay yays comin’ now and they gotta park somewhere,” he told us in an email interview. “Gotta park them cars somewhere, I tell you that much but boy, they give shitty tips. Way worse than the tourists give, that’s for damn sure.”
With such potential for niche businesses like these, community leaders of Casco Viejo’s alternative entrepreneur segment are encouraging everyone they know to get in on the action. “I tell my son,” reports Alejandro, owner of Alejandro’s, a convenient table selling gum and cigarettes. “I tell him, the money’s comin, you just gotta know where to look.”
On one square block alone, it’s not uncommon to find a vast bevy of them, each practicing their trade: beggars, window washers, taxi callers, and messengers (those who’ll run any errand in Casco Viejo for a small fixed fee.) It’s anyone’s guess what kind of Casco Viejo alternative entrepreneur will pop up next, but if the past is any indicator, they’ll clean right up.