Financing Development: the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program

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The shovels are out and the hard hats are on. One of the newest development projects in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina broke ground this month. USAInvestCo is building Northern Riverfront Marina and Hotel next to the City’s new Convention Center.  It will include a 204-slip marina, a hotel, retail shops, and a restaurant. The City of Wilmington and USAInvestCo are excited about the new marina and hotel’s impact on the downtown.  Chuck Schoninger, managing member of USAInvestCo, has known that he wanted to develop the marina and hotel in downtown since about 2004.  However, his development idea initially struggled to get financing. What was Schonnger’s solution? The EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program.

EB-5 Program is essentially “immigration through investment.” It allows local developers to finance new projects, encourages investment in local economic development projects, and creates jobs. The EB-5 Visa Program was enacted through the Immigration Act of 1990. The program has become increasingly popular over the past few years. Foreign investors are attracted to the program because it creates a fast track toward legal permanent residency for themselves, their spouses, and/or their children.

Here are the investment options through the EB-5 program: (i.) an investor makes a $1,000,000 investment or (ii.) a $500,000 investment in a “Targeted Employment Area” (an area with at least 150% of the national unemployment rate or a rural area) in a commercial enterprise. In either type of investment, the project must directly create at least 10 jobs within 2 years of the investor’s entrance into the United States.

Developers can also choose to collaborate with a Regional Center – a public or private economic entity that has an “EB-5 Regional Center” designation from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Regional Centers provide technical assistance to developers and connect foreign investors to projects.  Regional Centers focus economic development in an area (such as a county or group of counties) to promote job growth, economic growth and regional efficiency. The regional center designation also gives the developer special benefits. One benefit is that an investment in a regional center makes it easier to satisfy the jobs requirement because an investor can count jobs created either directly or indirectly by the project. Additionally, immigrant investors can contribute to debt investment through a term loan. A debt investment is only allowed in a project that is a part of a regional center.

The estimated cost of Northern Riverfront Marina and Hotel in Wilmington is about $42 million, with $9 million coming from direct developer investment, about $5 million from the City, and about $28 million from foreign investors. USAInvestCo worked with the NC Department of Commerce to designate the downtown as a Targeted Employment Area. As a result, the foreign investors for the project only needed to invest $500,000 for a visa. USAInvestCo employees regularly travel abroad and pitch American real estate development projects to investors. About 65% of USAInvestCo investors are from China.

Further, USAInvestCo is working directly with Atlantic Regional Center for Foreign Investment, a regional center based in Durham. Since they are working with a regional center, USAInvestCo is able to count jobs created directly and indirectly by development as a means to satisfying the job requirements of EB-5.  USAInvestCo predicts the Northern Riverfront Marina and Hotel development will create 150 direct jobs and 500 indirect jobs in downtown Wilmington.

It should be noted that financing through the EB-5 program is not for the faint of heart. According to a recent article from K & L Gates, LLP, EB-5 financing is inherently risky. The time and expenses associated with seeking approval from USCIS and a regional center can be prohibitive for some development projects. Further, finding the right foreign investors can also be time-consuming, costly, and precarious. For the foreign investors, the process is also uncertain. In an interview with USAInvestCo, a staff member mentioned that the job creation requirements are strict, and if the numbers do not work in the end, the project will not receive its investment funds and the investor will not receive the green card they were promised.

Because of the job creation requirements, the types of investments made using the EB-5 financing are limited. Most of the development examples across the country are in hospitality or restaurant industries – though there are some examples of manufacturing facilities.

Even though EB-5 has limitations and risks, it has proven to be a great mechanism for financing developments across the country. As is the case with many government programs, the amount of work to successfully complete the EB-5 process may be burdensome. However, the benefits might just be the key to a successful economic development project in your community. For more information about the program, visit www.uscis.gov/eb-5-investor.

Alexandria Murnan, a current graduate student in the UNC Department of City and Regional Planning, is a Community Revitalization Fellow at the School of Government.

Sources:

USAInvestCo. (2012). Retrieved October 25, 2012, from Hotel: Restaurant: Marina:

http://www.usainvestco.com/projectsNRMarinaHotel.php

Bowen, S. a. (2012, April 8). Star News Online. Retrieved October 25, 2012, from Schoninger’s trip

brings foreign money to Wilmington project: http://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20120408/ARTICLES/120409744?p=3&tc=pg&tc=ar

LLP, K. G. (2012, October 1). EB-5 “Immigration through Investment” Program Extended to 2015.

Retrieved October 25, 2012, from JDSupra: http://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/eb-5-immigration-through-investment-pr-01171/

Martel, D. (2012, February 3rd). Immigrant Investors to Fund Wilmington, North Carolina Marina

Project. Retrieved October 25th, 2012, from EB5Info.com: http://eb5info.web11.hubspot.com/bid/122152/Immigrant-Investors-to-Fund-Wilmington-North-Carolina-Marina-Project

*Photo from USAInvestCo website, http://www.usainvestco.com/projectsNRMarinaHotel.php

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