Foreign nationals arrive in Southwest Florida for a price, creating jobs

Allen Heise, 50, is building an upscale marina along a Port Charlotte waterfront. His method of financing, a federal program that grants visas to foreign investors, has attracted greater attention in a down economy. Ben Wolford/Staff

Photo by BEN WOLFORD // Buy this photo

Allen Heise, 50, is building an upscale marina along a Port Charlotte waterfront. His method of financing, a federal program that grants visas to foreign investors, has attracted greater attention in a down economy. Ben Wolford/Staff

The EB-5 investment visa program was created as an economy booster by Congress in 1990. Some who run regional centers that funnel investments into projects say the risk is too high for investors, who are left utterly without protection. Others attack the notion of selling green cards for $500,000.

PORT CHARLOTTE — Along a weedy, forgotten waterfront, Allen Heise is investing more than $40 million to build an upscale marina, complete with a rooftop heliport. Once built, it will be a glamorous and lonely centerpiece in an area he says is "gonna hit."

His waterfront renaissance, with its promise of 500 jobs, would lift a depressed sliver of Port Charlotte near U.S. 41 and Harbor Boulevard that has 27.8 percent unemployment, the county reports.

And while Heise, 50, of Port Charlotte, said he could pay for the project with domestic means, he has instead tapped into a federal investment visa program, or EB-5, that already has infused $1.5 billion in new foreign cash into the country over two decades.

Heise will rely on 80 Chinese and Western European investors who will each pay $500,000 in exchange for conditional U.S. visas, made permanent after two years if they can prove they created at least 10 jobs.

While others wait years for residence visas, these wealthy foreign nationals will wait about eight months.

Of course, the investment visa program, created as an economy booster by Congress in 1990, has critics. Some, including Heise and others who run "regional centers" that funnel investments into projects, say the risk is too high for investors, who are left utterly without protection. Others attack the notion of selling green cards.

"I think that it's in bad taste for us to be a great big powerful nation selling access to our country at $500,000 apiece," said David North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, where this month he testified about the weaknesses of the program before a Senate committee.

"I think that it's in bad taste for us to be a great big powerful nation selling access to our country at $500,000 apiece," said David North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, where this month he testified about the weaknesses of the program before a Senate committee.

The regional center component of the program, which enabled the Charlotte Harbor Marina project, will expire in September unless Congress renews it.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has approved 20 regional centers in Florida and 204 in the United States, all of which serve as public or private economic entities that link investors to projects. Some, like Heise's Charlotte Harbor Regional Center, directly oversee an undertaking. Others behave like fund managers, channeling money to associated developers.

The Florida Overseas Investment Center, a regional center with offices in Tampa, directs investors' money into three construction projects in South Florida and a mutual fund that, in turn, routes capital toward grocery-store projects, said its director, Roy Norton. He said it isn't difficult to track job creation.

"The people that are investing and are moving their families are relying on us," Norton said.

The regional centers have become the main flash point in the debate. Critics say their projects receive little federal scrutiny.

Once an investor gives $500,000 and undergoes background checks and an investigation into the source of the money, his or her entire family can enter the United States. But the investor may never see a return, and if the regional center cannot help the investor demonstrate that 10 permanent jobs were created, the government can refuse to remove the conditions on their visas at the end of two years.

"If I didn't think we could create those jobs, I wouldn't do it," said Heise, who also said his investors will see their money back.

Heise, known in Naples as a developer behind CocoBay and Grand Bay at Pelican Bay, said his investors are serious about half-a-million dollars and a shot at American immigration. All of them knew Heise's reputation through previous business dealings, and they all hire lawyers to review the stacks of pages in Heise's business plan.

Allen Heise, 50, is building an upscale marina along a Port Charlotte waterfront. His method of financing, a federal program that grants visas to foreign investors, has attracted greater attention in a down economy. Ben Wolford/Staff

Photo by BEN WOLFORD // Buy this photo

Allen Heise, 50, is building an upscale marina along a Port Charlotte waterfront. His method of financing, a federal program that grants visas to foreign investors, has attracted greater attention in a down economy. Ben Wolford/Staff

He said one reason his investors committed is that they like his idea: fractional boat ownership. Members will pay upward of $30,000 for the partial ownership and occasional use of any of the marina's dozens of boats.

Some states have raised the banner of investment visas, hailing the potential job gains. Federal immigration officials estimate the program has led to 34,000 jobs.

In Maine, state economic officials have opened the way for a statewide, state-run regional center. They hope to match the success of the Jay Peak Resort, a ski resort in a depressed area of northern Vermont that U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has hoisted as the program's poster child. More than 500 foreigners have invested $250 million into the company.

One of them is Anthony Korda, a Naples immigration attorney from London.

"The $500,000 investment is the tip of the iceberg," said Korda, 50.

Finding it increasingly difficult to leave vacations in Naples, he invested in Jay Peak five years ago and moved to Southwest Florida, where he bought a condo, a house, two cars and is putting his children through school. The subsequent consumerism leads to more job creation, he said.

From an office on Immokalee Road, Korda now helps other investors secure EB-5 visas, including through the Jay, Vt., and Charlotte Harbor regional centers.

In 2006, when Korda invested, the U.S. issued 744 EB-5 visas. In the first three quarters of this year, it issued an estimated 3,706 — a spike, but still nowhere near the 10,000 annual cap on the program.

To promote it, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is streamlining its services, including expedited processing and freeing up its immigration experts to meet with investors.

Rick Scott, Florida Governor

AP2010

Rick Scott, Florida Governor

"Gov. Scott promotes all types of visa programs that might help create jobs, including the EB-5 visas," spokesman Lane Wright said.

Gov. Rick Scott, for whom creating jobs is a raison d'etre, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers, support the program. A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio couldn't be reached to say whether he will vote to extend the regional center pilot when it comes up for renewal next year.

A spokesman for Mack issued a statement saying: "He supports the spirit of the program, but would need to review any legislative language to extend the program."

Scott hasn't promoted investment visas with the same public flair as some elected officials in New England, and foreign investment isn't expressly identified on his seven-step jobs agenda. But his office said he wasn't neglecting the EB-5 visa. While Scott was in Israel last week, Enterprise Florida, the state's economic arm, gave a presentation on investment visas.

"Gov. Scott promotes all types of visa programs that might help create jobs, including the EB-5 visas," spokesman Lane Wright said.

In Port Charlotte, pylons supporting new decks jut out of a Charlotte Harbor inlet. The dredging is complete, Heise said. A crane and two excavators on site remain some of the only signs of new construction along a sparse commercial strip.

"It's gonna hit," Heise said. "There's no doubt about it. There's so much waterfront."

He expects the marina to open for business sometime in 2013. Ultimately, the regional center will expand, taking on new projects and leading to perhaps more than 1,000 jobs, he said.

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