Monday, December 31, 2012

Linking rural development to immigration opportunities

That link is highlighted in this story from today's New York  Times, "Lure of Green Cards Brings Big Investments for Remote Resort in Vermont."  The dateline is Jay Peak, Vermont, (population 426), and the lede for Katharine Q Seelye's story follows:
At this remote outpost by the Canadian border, Bill Stenger is overseeing what he says is the biggest economic development project that Vermont has ever seen. 
* * *  
But even more unusual than the size of the undertaking is the method by which Mr. Stenger and his business partner, Ariel Quiros, are financing it. They have tapped into a federal program that gives green cards, or permanent residency, to foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in an American business — the reward for the investment is a chance at United States citizenship.
This huge $865 million development includes an expansion of the Jay Peak ski resort, a runway extension at the local airport, rehabilitation of nearby Newport, including rebuilding an entire block of downtown, a waterfront development, the city's first hotel and conference center, a massive indoor mountain-biking park, and a state-of-the art tennis facility.  Other Stenger enterprises in this corner of Vermont include building a biomedical research firm and a window manufacturing plant.  Stenger says that, together, these will directly or indirectly create 10,000 jobs.  

Beyond the use of the word "remote" in the headline and opening sentence, the early part of Seelye's story does not mention the rural location of this undertaking.  Rather, Seelye focuses on the types of folks who are investing in the mammoth development:  the 550 foreign investors who have put up a total of $275 million for the project's first phase.  As the excerpt above suggests, Stenger and Quiro have tapped into a immigration program that dates to 1990, but which was little used until a few years ago.  The U.S. government issued only 802 of the visas, called EB-5s, in 2006, but in 2012 it granted 7,818.  Seelye suggests that the the program is likely to reach its annual limit of 10,000 within the next few years.  One significant reason for this relatively recent revival of the program is the struggle for financing that developers face in the current economic climate.  

Halfway through the story, Seelye comes back to the "remote" mention in her headline, tying it to the immigration program:  
Investors must put up $1 million for a visa, but if they invest in a rural area or one with high unemployment, that is reduced to $500,000.
Jay and neighboring Newport, the seat of Orleans County, seem clearly to qualify as rural, though Seelye does not specify the statutory definition of "rural" for purposes of the immigration law.  Newport's population is 5,005, and that of Orleans County is about 27,000.  The poverty rate is 16%.  The county issued 105 building permits in 2011, no doubt reflecting the Stenger/Quiros enterprise.

Seelye explains that in this part of Vermont, often called the Northeast Kingdom, many long-time residents are concerned about the growth Stenger and Quiros are bringing--and the likelihood of rural gentrification.  The $500,000 from a single investor is more than the annual budget for the town of Newport, and some long-time, local businesses are being displaced by the development.  But, the publisher of a local newspaper notes that Stenger has been in the area many years and has a long-term commitment to the community.  Still many remain skeptical that even gezillions of dollars of (foreign) investment can overcome the drawback of the remote location and make the development sustainable.

The comments on Seelye's article take up many of the pros and cons of this program, in relation to other immigration law issues, socioeconomic status, and so forth.  As for me, I'm struck by the reminder that--at least back in 1990--the federal government cared enough about rural development to create (enhanced) incentives like this program to foster it.  I also agree with many of those who commented on the NYTimes article, though, that $500,000 is too little "skin in the game" to earn a green card.

NB  This article was the most emailed on nytimes.com for much of Dec. 31, the day on which it was published.  I suspect the wide-spread interest in the article has little to do with rural America and a lot to do with interest in immigration policy.

Charlotte Albright reported on this story for National Public Radio on January 2, 2013. 

1 comment:

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