I won’t lie – it’s very difficult to be a journalist and have to interview your own boss, maintaining an objective perspective and even being critical in your questions, especially when your boss is the center of attention, rumors and hopes of a community in which John S. Johnson has a strong presence, even though he is hardly ever seen or heard. I have worked for Johnson for eight years and in those years people have asked me about him; they’ve given him nicknames and even judged him from opposite perspectives: he is either a manipulator or a philanthropist filled with good intention. In an attempt to answer the many questions about the expansion of the Harmony Hotel and who Johnson is, I requested an interview and he agreed, although, to the chagrin of many curious people, it had to be brief.
When preparing the questions, I remembered conversations I had with real estate agents about the Johnsons’ investments, with Nosara residents that speak of him with admiration or suspicion, and with surprised tourists who asked why one of the Johnson & Johnson heirs was investing in a community like Nosara.
For those who know little or nothing about John Johnson, he was born in Boston and lives in Brooklyn. In his late 40s, he is married to Susan Short and has three children. Tall and thin, he likes to surf (in the water or the sand), scuba diving in exotic regions, and other extreme sports, although he doesn’t find much time for them, since, in addition to dedicating time to his family, he participates in a lot of projects, businesses and philanthropic activities, including the hotel industry, real estate, media, art, film, music and behavioral research – that’s right, he researches how and why we act one way or another.
The man is a mystery that defends his private life tooth and nail. Here we share a general look at his vision for the future of Nosara and why he believes in the community.
Contribuited photo. President Luis Guillermo Solis met with John S. Johnson in September during his official visit to New York.
-You recently bought the gated community Nosara Falls, 42 acres located in between Guiones and Esperanza. This on top of the purchase of the hotel Casa Tucan, Las Olas condominiums and the creation of Harmony Hotel. It seems like you want to create something big….
We’ve never wanted to create something “big” in Nosara. Given all the international press the area has recently received, there was definitely a risk of big developers coming in and fundamentally changing our town. We had the opportunity to purchase the properties so that they could be used in a way that supports the existing character of this place. For example, in the master plan we are developing for the hotel expansion site, we see the project as a natural extension of the Playa Guiones community. It’s a unique opportunity to combine elements of the hotel with public gathering space and commercial space for local businesses.
-How much did you pay for Nosara Falls? And for Las Olas and Casa Tucan?
I’ll decline to say what the prices were, but they are registered properties, so you can of course do your own research on this. (Although we couldn’t confirm the property values in the Costa Rican National Registry due to lack of information, it is estimated that Nosara Falls sold for somewhere between $8 to 10 million).
-Why are you investing so much in Nosara? Why not in some other place in the world?
Susan [Short] and I first met each other in Nosara, and we have a true emotional attachment to this place. Over the years we have grown to love it even more, and we care deeply about the community and the issues it faces.
-In a previous interview published in this newspaper, you mentioned your wife as a person that plays a big part in the Nosara projects. What is her input?
Susan has a great understanding of the potential for our projects to have a positive impact on both the environment and the people in the community. Her work with native plants at the Harmony Hotel was essential in restoring the natural ecosystem of that site while also creating job and educational opportunities. We are excited to apply the lessons we learned from that success at the Harmony to other projects going forward.
-You are a big fan of sustainability and also a world traveler. Are there any ideas or concepts from other parts of the world that you are implementing in Nosara?
I would say I’m more than just a fan of sustainability. For me, it is a way of living and working, and we naturally incorporate sustainability into everything we do. Nosara is a unique and special place. We love Nosara as it is, and we want to maintain the character and vibe of the town. But there’s no arguing that it’s going to continue to grow, and we want to make sure it grows responsibly. I actually think that Nosara could become a role model for other communities.
-Can you mention a few new concepts about sustainability that you are planning to implement in your future projects?
The term sustainability often calls to mind simply having the smallest possible negative impact on the environment. I want to explore how our projects can actually give back to and regenerate the environment. It’s also important to expand the focus to social sustainability. We want to empower the community by paying a fair wage, offering upward mobility, providing opportunities for educational programs and child care, and really respecting and celebrating the integrity of the local culture.
-After you opened Harmony Hotel, you started bringing stars like Susan Sarandon, Liev Schreiber, REM singer Michael Stipe, model Elle McPherson and more, and in a certain way taking Nosara into a high-end-low-key destination, with some of them buying property and therefore having an impact on raising prices in the real estate market. What do you say to people who may consider this counterproductive to fair access to services and land?
It’s funny to suggest that I’m responsible for celebrities choosing to come to Nosara. We may have created a hotel that they enjoyed staying in, but we didn’t recruit them or bring them down here to live. In reality, celebrities have very little to do with high real estate prices in this area. There is simply high demand for a small amount of product, and we’ve had to deal with the consequences of this as much as our neighbors. Since the beginning of the American Project, property in this area has always been high-priced and catered to expat investors. But that is also what has supported the growth of the community and local businesses.
-You were one of the investors of the Huffington Post as well as one of the founders of BuzzFeed. You also bought this newspaper back in 2005 and have been investing in it since then. Why is the media so important for you and what are your expectations for The Voice in the future?
Media is a platform that allows people to tell their stories. I bought the paper because it was closing and I saw the opportunity to maintain an important outlet for citizen journalism. I expect The Voice to continue to connect and give visibility to the small towns in our area, and to give people who care about their community an opportunity to be heard. We are now in the process of converting The Voice to a non-profit entity so that the content is truly independent, hyper-local journalism, and people can trust the integrity of the articles and posts.
-You have always shown interest in the Nosara Civic Association. Recently you helped them finance a study about the economy and tourism in Nosara via the CREST ONG. What is your opinion about the NCA’s work?
The NCA plays an extremely important role in addressing some of the pressing environmental issues facing Nosara. They’re also an important part of a network of groups that address community concerns in an organized and structured way. I think all of these community associations are essential to developing and growing Nosara in a way that makes sure we don’t sacrifice what makes this place so amazing in the first place.