Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Human Interest

Couple decides Costa Rica dream venture isn't paradise without each other

"To get the full value of a joy, you must have somebody to divide it with."

— Mark Twain

The dream died on a dreary afternoon in December, just before Christmas, when Debbie Knight finally forced herself to make that call.

Alone in her parents' spare bedroom, in the Tennessee house where she had been staying for too long, she took a deep breath and dialed her husband's cell.

In Costa Rica.

"He said he knew it was coming," she said later. "I'm having a hard time letting go of the future we were going to have."

The St. Petersburg couple had sold everything, bought the top of a mountain in Costa Rica, and built a beautiful bed and breakfast overlooking the ocean. They had set out to create a happily ever after. The Times told their story last April in Floridian.

But after $1.3 million in expenditures and two years of living in separate countries, they had to ask themselves: What good was owning a piece of paradise if they couldn't share it?

• • •

Debbie and her husband, Chuck, were college sweethearts. For almost 20 years they enjoyed boating, playing with their dogs and watching sunsets together.

She was an insurance underwriter. He was an architect. They didn't have any children and spent vacations traveling.

In 2005, they went to Costa Rica — and fell in love with the landscape, the people and the languid pace of life. They talked about retiring there. Within a few months they decided to move while they were still young enough to enjoy it.

They bought 4 acres south of Dominical — a level lot carved out of the jungle, perched high above the Pacific. They called their land Ocaso Cerro: Sunset Mountain.

Chuck designed a bed and breakfast, shaped like a butterfly, whose wings formed four guest rooms. The main house for him and Debbie would have vaulted ceilings and wraparound decks. Between the two buildings, Chuck sketched an infinity pool spilling over the mountainside.

They would have to sell their St. Petersburg house, boat and furniture to finance the construction. But everything would be ready by her 40th birthday in November 2009. They could run their own business in paradise. Together.

But it took years to sell their Florida house, and they got $250,000 less for it than they had expected. Meanwhile, building costs in Costa Rica nearly doubled. By 2009, the bed and breakfast was halfway done — but they had run out of money.

So instead of paying to rent an apartment in St. Pete Beach, Chuck quit his job and moved to Costa Rica to help with the building. Debbie moved in with her parents in Tennessee and telecommuted to her job. For the first time in two decades, they lived apart.

• • •

The first guests arrived the last week of 2010.

Chuck filled the pool, stocked the tiki bar, made elaborate egg souffles. He adopted a stray gray dog he named Jefe. Debbie made regular trips to Costa Rica, but always had to return to Tennessee to do her job.

By Thanksgiving, everything was finished. Chuck couldn't wait for Debbie to visit, to finally see all the details done.

She flew in just before Christmas. "By then, I knew we weren't going to be able to keep it," she said. "My only regret is that I never really felt like it was mine."

Debbie's company wouldn't let her telecommute from Costa Rica. With all the money she and Chuck have invested in their business, they can't afford for her to quit.

"The bed and breakfast was definitely a success. It was just starting to take off," she said. "But we could never afford to pay off everything on just that income."

And they couldn't be away from each other for another year.

• • •

The dream had been born as a way to slow down, spend more time together. But ever since Chuck and Debbie started building in Costa Rica, they had been stressed about money and permits. And being apart.

"I hate to see it go. It breaks my heart," Debbie said. "But if I can't be there with him, it just can't be."

Chuck listed the property and all three buildings for $1.3 million. They need to pay off all their loans, Debbie's parents, an investor friend. They're hoping, in the end, to barely break even.

Except for those two years apart. How can you put a price on that?

The bed and breakfast has bookings through the first week in February. After that, Chuck promised Debbie, he will hire a caretaker to oversee and sell the property. He will fly back to the United States to be with her by Valentine's Day.

They can get their own place. Maybe even another bed and breakfast to run together. Maybe back in St. Petersburg.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.

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