PUNTA DEL ESTE, URUGUAY - In recent weeks, the massive head shot of Donald Trump that greeted visitors to the Trump Tower Punta del Este “ultra exclusive” apartment project in this well-heeled South American beach destination vanished. The photo of Trump and his three adult children behind the marble counter in the vanilla-scented showroom also was taken down.
But the giant gold letters spelling out the name of the new president of the United States still stretch from the sixth to the seventh floor of the 26-story beachfront building's concrete frame. And that is all that's necessary to capitalize on this next chapter in the life of the brash real estate mogul.
Trump has said he will start no new projects outside the U.S. while in office. He is handing over control of The Trump Organization to two of his sons. But Trump Tower Punta del Este illustrates how his new position remains good for business internationally.
In a country where people have seen some towers rise and then stall, sometimes abandoned for decades, Trump's electoral victory gives confidence to buyers.
“I have no doubt that it is going to be finished and even more so because he's going to be president of the United States,” said Talma Friedler, whose New Home Properties sells units in the building.
In the past year, the average unit prices have increased 30 to 35 percent, said Juan Jose Cugliandolo, CEO of YY Development Group, the project's developer. It is now between 65 and 70 percent sold and none of the $550,000 base units remain, Cugliandolo said. What is left are units starting at $770,000 and going to $8 million.
It's unclear how much the price increases have to do with Trump's ascent, but Cugliandolo called his name on the project a mark of an especially safe investment.
The decision to take down the photos came from Trump, the developer said.
“The reality is obviously that becoming president of the United States does not fit with putting his photo on a real estate development,” Cugliandolo said.
The developer said Trump's election and subsequent promise to pull back from new projects around the world — including another YY Development project in Buenos Aires that did not get past the permitting stage — makes this one all the more exclusive. Trump's involvement in the Punta del Este project is a licensing agreement for the Trump brand. His public financial disclosure listed royalties from the deal of $100,000 to $1 million.
But the developer said he does not see a connection between politics and their project, even though in the same breath he praised the visit of Eric Trump, one of the president's sons who will be running The Trump Organization. Earlier this month, the young Trump came to check on the tower's progress and personally greet buyers.
He carried with him the cachet of the next American president. “It honors us that he would come this summer, days before his father takes office,” Cugliandolo said.
On a recent day in the tower's ground floor showroom, everything was geared toward the “ultra exclusive” concept. A small refrigerator to one side chilled bottles of champagne for potential clients.
Above the showroom, the building's 26 stories remain a concrete skeleton, but inside prospective buyers could see mock-ups of the apartments' kitchens and bathrooms and peruse brochures listing the many amenities. Its 154 apartments — plus two penthouses — are scheduled to be finished in late 2018.
The brochures contain phrases like “Luxury living is about to arrive,” “ultra exclusive becomes real,” and “better than ever before.”
Among the luxury touches will be: two indoor heated pools, one of them exclusively for swimming; an “iconic” outdoor climate-controlled pool with two waterfalls, and a bar and restaurant. There will be a spa with sauna, Scottish shower and massage room. Residents will enjoy a private theater, private wine cellar and the building's own market. Eight high-speed elevators for residents and two service elevators will whisk people around. Covered regulation tennis courts will include spectator seating and intelligent climate control.
Natalia Provenzano, a 43-year-old Argentine who has been coming to Punta del Este for 30 years, tried to soak it all in with her husband.
“It's outstanding, I don't know what to say. It is something unknown until now,” said Provenzano on her way out. She said she and her husband are very interested in buying.
Provenzano came to Trump Tower on the advice of Ligia Kindelan, a Cuban who works for real estate broker Remax at a nearby beach community.
“Sales are going very well; there are very few units left,” Kindelan said. In terms of the price for an apartment, she said: “You need to think more than $1 million.”
Practically in mid-sentence, Kindelan was interrupted when a Trump Tower employee called her by name back to the reception. When she returned, she declined to continue speaking.
Support, criticism, indifference
Outside, dozens of tourists walked or cycled by, glancing at the project.
Opinions about Trump were varied. Among a dozen residents of Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, there were supporters, critics and those who are simply indifferent.
Argentine tourist Paola Craposof had the most positive take: “If they elected him president and he has his chain of hotels, it's because he's a businessman. And you should support people who decide to invest in other countries.”
Hugo Acosta of Paraguay said he saw Trump as too radical and confrontational, but said the prestige the tower would bring to Punta del Este was undeniable.
“He is the president of the United States and it is an important icon for Punta del Este and the region,” Acosta said.
No one questioned the security or the potential it could become a target of terrorism, even though on Dec. 9, firefighters had to clear the project after a bomb threat that proved to be false.
Natalia Arrospide, wearing work clothes and a hat that said “Trump,” is the owner of a business that paints buildings. She painted the reception area herself, including the wall behind the marble counter and champagne refrigerator that used to display the photo of Trump and his children. She also painted the giant golden letters that hang on the facade.
“He's already president, isn't he?” Arrospide asked before the inauguration. She doesn't follow U.S. politics closely, in spite of living in Greenville, South Carolina, for eight years, where she learned to paint.
“The work environment is good,” she said. “The building is called Trump, but it's like any other job.”