Big Project In Vermont Banks On Immigrant Investors

fromVPR

A development project in a remote area of northeast Vermont is one of the largest in the country to bring in funds using the federal EB-5 immigrant investor program. It allows qualified foreigners who invest $500,000, and create at least 10 American jobs, to get green cards.

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In some struggling areas of the United States, foreign money is playing a key role in efforts to revive the economy. Billions of dollars have poured into this country through the federal government's EB-5 immigrant investor program. This grants permanent residency to foreign citizens if they invest at least half a million dollars into approved projects.

One of the largest projects using this program is in Vermont. In a part of the state where farmers are struggling and factories have closed, a ski resort developer is proposing a plan that involves more than half a billion dollars of foreign investment.

Charlotte Albright of Vermont Public Radio has the story.

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CHARLOTTE ALBRIGHT, BYLINE: In a remote region of Vermont known as the Northeast Kingdom, a skinny 19-year-old leans against a pick-up truck and watches his buddy operate an excavator at the Jay Peak ski resort.

TYLER FARRAND: I'm Tyler Farrand, and I'd like to be running an excavator some day, up on Jay Peak.

ALBRIGHT: Farrand's been getting by on part-time work, but he may soon have better opportunities. One of this ski resort's co-owners recently announced plans for an even more ambitious project. His name is Bill Stenger, and in this tiny corner of the country, he's making big headlines with announcements like this:

BILL STENGER: Today is not so much about Jay Peak, but it is about taking a program we have proven effective here and expanding its value to our surrounding community.

ALBRIGHT: The program Stenger is talking about at this press conference is the federal EB-5 visa program. It allows qualified foreigners who invest $500,000, and create at least 10 American jobs, to get green cards. Stenger successfully tapped this program to develop Jay Peak. Now, he's using it to bring in a bigger pot of money - nearly $600 million. So he's been on the road.

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ALBRIGHT: On a recent trip to China, more than a hundred investors came to Stenger's seminar and watched a video showing scenic aerial views of rolling green hills, and autumn foliage framing a pristine lake. It shows Stenger's plans for new ski lodges, a lakeside marina and conference center and a redeveloped city block in the town of Newport.

Already, a German window manufacturer plans to locate there, so will a Korean manufacturer of hi-tech artificial organs. Stenger doesn't doubt more foreign investors will come through.

STENGER: Because they like what they see, they appreciate the community, they sense the welcome environment and the quality of what we are doing, and that tips them in our direction.

ALBRIGHT: Back home, this burly but soft-spoken businessman wears a casual ski sweater and works out of a temporary trailer near one of his fancy new hotels. Vermonters see him as a savior. He says he's just trying to help keep his neighbors off the dole.

Full-time employment has been hard to come by here. But one of Stenger's main challenges is ironic: this is a sparsely populated region, so it may be hard find enough workers for his promised boom. Local schools are working on that now - they're training housekeepers, hotel managers and construction workers.

NANCY MCDERMOTT: It's the biggest initiative ever in Vermont, seven projects.

ALBRIGHT: At a career institute in Newport, business teacher Nancy McDermott uses a Power Point slide show to teach students about the new job openings. Many Vermonters have left to find work and she thinks Stenger's project will bring the back.

MCDERMOTT: So yes, I really think it's going to happen.

ALBRIGHT: State officials are also on board, working with schools and prospective employers to make sure skills match new jobs. That state involvement is a good sign, says economist Emily Blanchard.

EMILY BLANCHARD: Right, it's a small state and it seems like if the fairly small set of policymakers can demonstrate to potential investors that they're behind this project, that's going to go a long way in convincing firms, investors, individuals, that this is a good place to do business.

ALBRIGHT: Blanchard is an economist at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. She says Stenger's plan is ambitious, but he might pull it off, thanks to the combination of state cooperation and wealthy foreigners hankering for U.S. visas.

And Stenger says, so far, he's banked about $160 million and he's got pledges from foreign investors for over $100 million more.

For NPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright, in Northeastern Vermont.

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