How the Rotary Club, Cold Beer, Beauty and Opportunity in Belize Combined to Lure Mark Leonard to a Tropical Paradise

Excerpts of an interview with Mark Leonard, June 29, 2016
Chuck: Thank you for joining us, Mark.  Your posts have always been so genuine and colorful.  Please tell our readers how you happened to come to Belize.
Mark: It’s all because of the Rotary Club.
I was living in Northern California when a friend in my Rotary Club went to Belize on a contract and came back saying that Belize is looking for economic development assistance, so I went down and met with various people, including the prime minister.  As soon as I got off the plane, I liked what I saw. Nothing worked out with the government, so I did my own thing opened a restaurant and bought some properties.
Chuck: Were you a developer before?
Mark: I’ve been in real estate now over 30 years. Most of what I did in California was real estate: redevelopment work; fixing up houses. I had a management company, a development company, a mortgage company, and a real estate company, so I covered the gamut. I was also the chairman of planning commission in Pittsburg, California.
Chuck: With that broad range of experience, is that why they wanted you in Belize?
Mark: They wanted input to see what they could do. The thing is, they don’t have a lot of money so they wanted to see if I could generate some interest from other people to come down here and make some investments.
Chuck: What year was this?
Mark: Most of these meetings took place in 2002.
Cerros Sands BeachfrontChuck: So did you come to Belize more as a business opportunity or something else?
Mark: It was a business opportunity, and then I just fell in love with the place. The weather was great, the sea was beautiful, and the beer was cold.  Quite frankly, and the girls are so pretty that it was “over” for me.
Chuck: So has it worked out? Is the beer still cold? And are the seas still beautiful?
Mark: Yeah, all that’s pretty good.  I met my wife here.  Also I owned a bar and a restaurant in San Pedro, and I had one up in San Ignacio as well. I just got done building another one at Cerros Sands.  It is probably one of the nicest facilities around.  I would put it up against the finest in Belize.
Chuck: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about life in Belize?
Mark: I don’t know if there are that many. Some people think Belize is part of Mexico. They may say, “Oh, is that Mexico?” and then, “No, no, it was British Honduras.” Many people are surprised when they find out Belize is English-speaking and has a Western legal system.
Mark Leonard's daughter, ShantellI’ll tell you what happens. A huge percentage of the people who come to Belize come on cruise ships and get off in Belize City. I spent time in Newark, New Jersey, where there are some places you don’t want to go. It’s the same for Belize City.  For the most part, other than the business out of Belize City, it’s not really a great place and the people who don’t go any further get a really bad opinion of Belize. The folks who do wander off and take the excursions that are offered by the cruise line or just hire a tour guide and go out on cave tubing or horseback riding, or zip lining, go to the Mayan ruins, or go to the cayes, they have a great opinion of Belize. But the ones who stay in Belize City don’t.
If you jumped off a cruise ship to a spot that’s not very attractive, you’re going to go back with a poor opinion of the place and that gets spread, as 80% of the visitors come by cruise ship, than the people who come down on a more extended overnight stay. If you were to interview somebody who came on a cruise ship, probably 8 out of 10 would say, “Oh my god, I don’t think if we’ll ever go back there again.” But the other 20% will tell you, “Oh my god, I had a great time. It’s beautiful.” Every one of the extended stay guests would probably say they had a great experience in Belize and loved it. It’s a matter of what you see or what you do.  If you spent only a limited time in Belize, you’re generally going to develop a rougher opinion.
I argue that point with the government every opportunity I get because I am a member of the Belize Tourism Industry Association and a Board member in Corozal. “You have to get that port moved out of Belize City,” I tell them. There is discussion of a Norwegian cruise line going into Harvest Caye. There are a couple of other cayes they are looking at to attract cruise lines to other locations.   Once they move the places where the cruise lines port from Belize City, people are going to get off the cruise ship and they are going to say, “This is drop dead gorgeous!” This will eliminate all the negative stuff that has been passed along from people who have come down on cruise ships and never gone outside of Belize City.
Chuck: What should people who are considering moving to Belize know?
Mark Leonard's daughter, KeylaMark: They are trying to bring all the real estate people under one umbrella and have a set of regulations for the industry. Right now, every taxi guy seems to have maps in his car and want to show you a property. So people who are considering moving to Belize should do their homework.  There’s not really a strong MLS here now, so people can’t just go one spot on the internet. There is a lot of different information from a lot of sites and probably some people may take the wrong person’s opinion as to why not to go see something because there are still a lot of “net listings” down there.
People in real estate may not show you everything you came down to see.  We have people contact us, make an appointment, and then never show up. They may get information just from one person who may disparage one project over another, so the people coming down don’t get an accurate, complete, unbiased look at what Belize has to offer.  In contrast, I let people know about all the projects in the area before they make a decision.
Chuck: You mentioned the term “net listing.” What is a net listing?
Entrance sign for Cerros SandsMark: An example of a net listing is when, instead of the normal 6% commission an agent may earn in the US, the agent makes a deal whereby he gets the buyer a certain price, and keeps whatever he sells the property for above that price.  Because he makes more selling one property than another, the agent will steer buyers away from other projects where he isn’t making as much commission. It happens here; no doubt about it.
In addition, there are certain groups that are marketing certain projects and all they’re doing is strapping you to their wrist for 5 days.   It’s hard for you get away and look at anything else, and they grind you up a bit. People who are looking at Belize are finding those on the Internet and thinking, “I don’t want to be stuck like that for 5 days; I want to wander around.” What happens is that the ones who escape, who think that they’re down for something else but are really on a property tour, may get to our place and find it’s really beautiful.  Everybody does things differently. I tell people, “Look at it all and figure out what’s right for you.”
Chuck: Now you got a family here in Belize. Please tell us about that.
Mark: I have a Belizean wife and two step daughters here in Belize. My grown son is in California right now by San Diego and I think he will be coming down as well. He’s been down before and he loves it.
Mark Leonard's daughter, Shantel
I have one daughter entering her senior year of high school here and my other daughter going into sophomore year. I’ve been with my wife for 10 years and we were the first residents in Cerros Sands. Now of course we have lots of other people who have moved in.
Chuck: What’s it like raising kids in Belize?
Mark: Raising kids in Belize is probably no different than other spots other than the fact that they are not bombarded with what’s on TV and other negative things in the culture. You can have the things you want, just probably modestly, and it’s more of a family type environment.
I guess in the States you would probably be worried about every darn thing.  Here, our girls have uniforms they wear to school. They have a ribbon or a tie on their neck that identifies what grade they’re in. It’s pretty laid back. We don’t have theme parks everywhere. We don’t have a lot of that kind of mentality. So it’s not like you’re running around with the kids all day and having to dump them off somewhere and they’re gone for a day. We do things more as a family, and the activities center around the water because the sea is here. The villages are pretty tightly woven there. The families are in the villages are closely related, so if you have a friend who lives there you get invited to numerous functions. There are primary schools near us and everyone gets involved in these functions as well.
I don’t think the quality of education is that far off from the States. I don’t like the New Math stuff but I guess I wouldn’t like it in the US, either. My daughters seem to be getting a well-rounded education. They are taught English but the kids down here know English, Spanish, and they know Creole. They are trilingual almost from birth. Then they decide which way to go in school and whether they want to go on to college. We have colleges and junior colleges there.  We have friends who are sending their children just across the border to Chetumal, Mexico for various other degrees like pre-med or things along that line so I don’t think we’re missing too much there. A lot of the primary schools are basically adopted and supported by churches.  If you don’t like the educational system or you don’t want to be part of it, you can homeschool. So the option is there for that, too.
Chuck: Please give me a typical day in Belize for the Leonard family.
Mark: Well, right now it’s summertime and the girls are out of school so they sleep in. My wife Francesca has some things to do down at her restaurant so she might have some errands to run. The kids may go out to town shopping. Otherwise, they hang out the house and even though they are in Belize, they do have their electronic devices so there is a little bit of Facebook time. Then it’s whatever they want to do. Go out and play, hang out, swim, or watch a little TV because it’s summer right now.
If it weren’t summer they’d be up early and out of the house by about 5:20 AM catching the bus to go to high school and they’d return around 4 o’clock in the afternoon where we pick them up Mark Leonard, Franchesca, and Mark's father, Johnin the village when the van drops them off. We bring them back home and of course, it’s homework and dinner and a little TV or whatever.  They hang out, and off to bed until the next morning. My girls get involved with different events.  For example, my oldest daughter is about to go to some modeling and competing to be the Queen of the Bay (Corozal Bay), so she’ll be working on dance routines with mom.  They’re always getting invited to be part of the prom or a singing event or karaoke, which is pretty popular in Belize. Mom enjoys going out and being in those competitions so everybody is running to that stuff and getting their costumes together.  Right now its my job to get the pirate costumes.
Chuck: So you’re a family guy now. You went from being single and concerned with cold beer and attractive women and now you’re a family guy getting pirate costumes!  Socially, how have you been accepted into your wife’s Belizean family?
Mark: My father-in-law is a week older than me. That was a bit of a culture shock for the family. They visit us from time to time. My wife has a very large family and her uncles are all over the place, like in San Pedro, Belmopan, San Ignacio, and even Costa Rica. So we get visitors from time to time. We probably see her mom and dad more often than anybody else in the family because it is easier for them to travel. They are heavily involved with their church. It’s all good. No issues there. My dad has been to Belize and visited with Francesca and the kids and they can’t wait for him to come back down. He’s nearly 92 years old and may be visiting pretty soon, too.
Chuck: Wonderful. Thank you, Mark, for visiting with us, and letting us into your life in Belize.  All the best to you, Francesca, all your kids, and your dad.
Mark: Thanks best to you and yours as well.

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