TAMPA — Cash-strapped like all governments, the city of Tampa is wondering whether rich foreigners might finance a jobs boom in exchange for permanent visas.
The City Council voted Thursday to set up a committee to explore the idea after hearing that Dallas, Miami and other cities have jumped into the federal government's visa-selling sweepstakes, a 20-year-old pilot project that is rapidly gaining steam.
"It's a tool in our toolbox to lead us onto the international stage,'' said council member Yvonne Yolie Capin, who is pushing the idea. "It's a no-brainer.''
Under immigration law, the federal government sets aside 10,000 visas a year solely for the "EB-5" program. Under it, a foreigner earns a temporary visa by investing $1 million into a project that will create at least 10 jobs, or $500,000 for 10 jobs in high-unemployment areas. If the jobs remain after two years, the visa converts to a green card, granting permanent residency.
Chinese and South Koreans, in particular, have used the program to secure U.S. educations for their children or citizenship.
Developers like it because the investors — not motivated by hefty returns — will often underwrite projects on very favorable terms. Atlantic Yards, a huge Brooklyn urban renewal project that includes a sports and entertainment arena, cut millions of dollars off its financing costs by luring dozens of investors.
In the Tampa Bay area, a few small, commercial centers have been financed by EB-5 money. What the city is contemplating is more complex.
The committee will explore whether the city should apply to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to become an EB-5 "regional center,'' which vets projects and pools investment money for a wide geographic area. The country has about 250 regional centers, but most are privately run and some have given the program a bad name — backing projects where the jobs fizzled, investors lost their money and nobody got a green card.
That gives cities a leg up while competing with other regional centers, said Mikki Canton, a lawyer who advises Miami on its foray into the visa program.
This year, about 3,000 investors have applied nationwide, up from just 640 in 2008. Knowing that a local government is involved inspires investor confidence.
"The risk is not to you, it is to the investors,'' Canton said. "They are not all billionaires. Some put in all they have got. That's why Homeland Security loves cities.''
Miami expects to apply for regional center status in a few months, citing a $100 million building on Brickell Avenue as its first signature project. The building would include residential, office and medical space, Canton said, and "even three consulates.'' The developer, whom she declined to name, has arranged at least 60 percent of the financing and hopes EB-5 money can fill part of the balance.
Miami hopes particularly to attract Latin American investors, Canton said, and Tampa could partner in that. "There is a lot of money there,'' she said. "We could see where this would put Florida on the map.''
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of Homeland Security, investigates investors to make sure they didn't earn their money through the drug trade, child slavery or other nefarious means.
But council Chairman Charlie Miranda was skeptical. What would the program cost? Who would run it? What would happen if a project with Tampa's seal of approval went sour? Plus the whole idea just didn't sit right.
"I wonder about the philosophy of selling green cards,'' Miranda said. "People are dying and crossing bodies of water at great risk to get here and most times fail. Is America really for sale?''
Other council members noted that the committee, which will report back by January, was expected to answer such questions. It will be led by Fowler White lawyer William Flynn, an immigration specialist. If the council eventually pursues the idea, a successful regional center application will cost $200,000 to $300,000, Flynn estimated, enough to pay for economic studies and legal work.
The idea has already garnered some support, with Capin presenting letters from the West-shore Alliance and the University of South Florida.
The Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. frequently conducts trade missions here and abroad, president Rick Homans told the council.
"We are part of an international community,'' he said. A regional center "would be a very effective and useful tool when we are out promoting Tampa and Hillsborough County.''
Not mentioned at the meeting was a potential baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. EB-5 financing has been bandied around as one possible funding source. Capin said she has not had a single conversation about using that possibility.
"I don't carry anybody's water'' on a stadium, she said. "That's at least five years away. Foreign investors don't want to wait that long.''