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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – Latin America's oldest colonial city is aiming for a rebound, pouring tens of millions of dollars into repairing streets, cleaning up trash, installing streetlights and renovating centuries-old buildings in hopes of getting more of the Dominican Republic's 5 million tourists a year to spend less time at the beach and more in the capital's long-neglected historic center.
Business owners are delighted, but residents of Santo Domingo's walled city are watching nervously, fearful that they will be priced out by a surge of stylish new restaurants and boutiques.
"Bringing more tourists here can be traumatic for us," said Pedro del Castillo, the 67-year-old president of the neighborhood's residents' association. "It seems like the aim is for us, the residents, to leave."
The city's most ambitious restoration project in decades is funded by a $120 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank, most of which still must be approved by the Dominican Republic's congress.
The first $30 million in development money has gone to paint 800 homes, restore 200 colonial-era facades, replace water mains and street lighting and install new sidewalks. More private business is already moving in, with some 325 new cafes, restaurants, galleries and luxury condominiums opening in the colonial center over the past five years, according to official figures.
The center is "a diamond that needs polishing," said Silvanh Riedel, manager and part-owner of the Billini boutique hotel.
Angelo Louis, a 19-year-old barber, rents a 90-square-foot (8.4-square-meter) space without a bathroom in centuries-old El Conde street for $350 a month, and has to leave because the privately owned building will be restored with public money in coming months. He said he fears that the owner of the remodeled buildings will raise the rent and make it impossible for him to move back.
"It's going to hit us hard," he said.
The program's advocates say such fears are misplaced, and the government is dedicated to creating not just economic development, but better lives for residents of the colonial center.
"The idea is to rescue the city in a different way" than in past attempts, said Maribel Villalona, the head of the program.
The colonization of the Americas began in Santo Domingo, which was founded in 1496 by Christopher Columbus' brother Bartolome and features the continent's first cathedral, first hospital and first university. The center was abandoned by many after the country's 1965 civil war, with more prosperous residents moving to new developments on the outskirts of the capital.
To celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas, some of the center's limestone buildings with scenic wooden balconies were restored in 1992, but the program did little to improve the economic fortunes of the area or draw more of the Dominican Republic's tourists. According to government statistics, only 15 percent of visitors to the Dominican Republic spent time in Santo Domingo and only 3 percent slept there, drawn away by all-included packages at beach resorts and dissuaded by the lack of high-quality lodging inside Santo Domingo's walled city.
Villalona said the second phase would be aimed at helping poor families in the historic center, restoring some 200 homes and providing their residents with job-training and small-business loans to help them benefit from the expected surge in tourism.
Those promises aren't soothing the anxieties of residents like Fidel Perez, a 48-year-old photographer who plans to get married in coming months and says the $300 or $400 he can pay for rent would only get him and his wife a single room in the old city, forcing him to look for housing far from the center for the first time in his career.
He blames the rising rents on the renovation of the colonial city, and says he's pessimistic that any improvement in the area will benefit its working people.
"For now," he said. "We're watching the game from the sidelines."
Ezequiel Abiu Lopez on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Ezequiel_Abiu