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CompanyHistory

Conservatorio – Life at the Core

“Conservatorio is committed to sustainable urban revitalization through human-centered real estate development and management in Panama City’s urban core.”

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We seek positive social impacts for our community and sustainable profits for our investors. We restore historic homes and build residential, retail and office buildings and hotels. Because we believe diversity is important for healthy communities we build from extremely high-end all the way to affordable.

Company History

Our company history reveals a passion for transformation, respect for history, and belief in people.

 

Cities may be mankind’s greatest invention. When successful, cities create enormous prosperity, but like mankind itself, they are far from perfect. What our vision, ingenuity and optimism create in one generation, our excesses, egos and short-sightedness can destroy in the next.

 

History is replete with urban boom-and-bust stories and Casco Viejo is a classic example. In four decades it went from being Panama City’s thriving heart to the city’s most violent neighborhood. But even as it decayed, it retained its character, walkability, and central location, making it ripe for revitalization.

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"Conservatorio was not the first company to begin restoring buildings in Casco Viejo, but I think it was the first built on a long-term vision for revitalization."

Conservatorio’s founders, KC Hardin and Ramon Ricardo Arias, recognized that bringing Casco Viejo back required more than just a business plan; it required a holistic approach. They saw Casco Viejo as an urban ecosystem where all of the buildings and people were interrelated. They asked what each restored building added to the whole—and what the displacement of existing uses took away—and understood that the particular people and uses that occupied each, especially in those early days, could greatly affect the future trajectory of the neighborhood, and therefore had to be well thought out.

The first building the partners purchased was the former Conservatorio Nacional de Musica (which was held in a sociedad anonima called Conservatorio, hence the company’s name). The partners purchased the company and, after a light renovation to the building, invited artists and Smithsonian scientists to move in at discounted rents, believing that their adventurous spirit would be a good fit for a rough-edged plaza and that their pioneer attitudes would attract more residents.

 

The area around Plaza Herrera had such a bad reputation then that it took six months to find the first taker. But after the first artist couple moved in, others quickly followed. Within a year the building was full. By then Conservatorio had purchased two additional buildings and was working towards closing its first round of outside funding.

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“We felt it was possible to build inclusiveness into the plan so that Casco would attract great new people and businesses but also keep space and respect for the authentic originals.”

Revitalizing a neighborhood by attracting urban pioneers was not invented by Conservatorio. “I understood the revitalization process because I lived much of my life in special neighborhoods that had declined and were revitalizing or had achieved too much fame for their specialness and were actually losing it quickly” says KC.

This passion for cities and an understanding of the two sides of urban revitalization came from living in Miami’s Coconut Grove and South Beach, and Greenwich Village and Brooklyn in New York — and it deeply informed Conservatorio’s business philosophy. “I saw how much economic, social, and cultural value was created when young, creative, energetic people moved into South Beach and Williamsburg, and I saw how value was eventually lost when those pioneers left” says KC. “They are the cultural entrepreneurs whose food, music, art and lifestyles attract the rest of us.” Those pioneers were attracted by the authentic original residents and businesses, since those icons are an essential part of culture.

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“We learned how important motivation and self-esteem are to breaking the cycle of poverty. Once we learned that we understood sustainable urban revitalization requires putting human development first.”

That was the origin of the company’s policies of one-to-one ratio of affordable housing to luxury units, its preference for locally-owned businesses and culturally-oriented organizations.

But inclusiveness was harder than it first appeared. The company quickly learned that just offering the opportunity to buy an affordable apartment or even take a job was not enough for residents trapped in an inter-generational cycle of poverty.

The company quickly looked into how it could partner with organizations focused on human development and turn the company’s empty space into platforms for motivating and training people. The impact of Fundacion Danilo Perez, Fundacion Calicanto, Enlaces, Aprojunsan and many others came from that philosophy. “We began to understand ourselves as creators of platforms for mutual, long-term success.”

 

The key to enabling this long-term, humans-first philosophy is patient capital. Conservatorio depended on generational investors who were interested in long-term results, and who understood that sustainability is good business. “We’ve been lucky to have wise and supportive partners from the beginning” says KC. “Without aligned capital in this business nothing happens.”

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“We learned that projects come out better when we bring the end-users into the design process rather than thinking we have all the ideas.” Accordingly, Conservatorio considers co-creation a necessary core competency.

The focus on alignment became another Conservatorio hallmark. A neighborhood like Casco Viejo has such a complex group of stakeholders, that a shared vision for the future is critical. The company has learned that one of its core capabilities has to be the creation of shared visions. “When people have a similar image in their head of the future they want they propel themselves towards it” says KC. “And when they have very different images they tend to disagree.”

“At times the government and UNESCO worked to pull the community together, but eventually we learned that governments come and go, so the community has to organize itself.

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“We always felt that if you are in it for the long-term, you have to live by your principles and try to get others to do the same. Districts like Casco are too small to do anything else.”

Another lesson the company learned in the early years was the importance of integrity. “Casco was the Wild West back then, and a lot of developers did whatever they could get away with, which was pretty much anything.” You can still see the scars in buildings that are out of character with the neighborhood and stories that will live on the internet forever of customers being treated badly by developers.