As Connecticut's economy continues to recover at a snail's pace, public officials and businesses are showing interest in an obscure, two-decade-old federal program that aims to increase foreign investment in the state.
The EB-5 visa program, which grants green cards to foreign nationals who invest at least $500,000 in a U.S. company, has gotten little to no attention in Connecticut since the program started in 1990.
But with increased pressure to grow jobs in the state, officials are giving the program another look, with an eye toward attracting investors particularly from Asia.
"There are millionaires and billionaires, especially in China, eager to invest in the Unites States," said former Congressman Rob Simmons, who is leading the charge to get the state more involved in the EB-5 program. "We feel like Connecticut needs to wake up to the opportunity this program presents."
Simmons, who was part of a Connecticut delegation that traveled to China last fall, said the Chinese have invested huge amounts of money converting poorer cities into centers of entrepreneurship. It's a model that he believes could be replicated in parts of Connecticut.
There is a class of wealthy Chinese businessmen anxious to invest their dollars in U.S. companies, Simmons said. But one of their principal concerns is how to travel back and forth between the two countries.
That is where EB-5 comes into play.
Under the immigration program, there are three ways to invest in a U.S. company and under each scenario immigrant investors are granted full-time residency status in America for a minimum of two years. In exchange, the investor must commit at least $500,000 in capital and create 10 jobs during that time period.
If those conditions are met and the company and jobs remain intact after two years, the investor could receive a permanent green card.
The simplest avenue is for a foreign investor to inject $1 million in a stand-alone or troubled business, or $500,000 if the company is located in a targeted unemployment zone, usually a rural area or area that has experienced high unemployment of at least 150 percent of the national average.
The other option, which could create a much wider and coordinated economic impact for the state, is for public or private officials to create a regional center. About 36 other states already have at least one such center, which is a designated geographic zone located in a rural or high unemployment area where foreign investors can park their dollars while dodging some of the red tape involved in the program.
The state of California has 31 regional centers, while the entire state of Vermont is a regional center. Connecticut doesn't have a single regional center. Most of the ones that already exist around the country are privately run.
While foreign investors can currently make investments in stand-alone or troubled businesses in Connecticut, Simmons said creating a regional center would create more credibility, and comfort for investors.
"Without a regional center it's hard to coordinate that activity," Simmons said. "We are trying to develop this program as a major source of investment for the whole state."
Dana Bucin, an Updike, Kelly and Spellacy lawyer who is an expert on immigration issues, said one of the difficulties of creating a regional center in Connecticut is that it needs to be located in a rural area or an area of high unemployment, which can be difficult to find in the state.
In addition, there are start-up costs including $6,230 for an application, and potentially up to $100,000 for legal fees and staffing.
And there has to be a willingness from the private sector to play a role in the program, since most centers are privately run.
But Bucin said she hears interest from foreign investors who want to invest in Connecticut, so opportunities are out there.
"Individuals are reaching out to Connecticut right now," Bucin said. "There are a lot of foreign investors looking to put money in a reliable business opportunity."
One region taking a serious look at the program is southeastern Connecticut, and in particular Norwich. Simmons said some areas in that region have fallen on hard times because of the loss of manufacturing jobs, and there is a tremendous opportunity there to redevelop some old mills.
In terms of the state's involvement in EB-5, that remains uncertain.
Laura Jaworski, who works in the international division of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said that will largely be up to new DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith.
But Jaworski also noted that Connecticut is already an attractive place for foreign-owned companies, which provide 104,600 jobs and employ about 7 percent of Connecticut's total workforce.
And, since most regional centers are privately run, the state doesn't necessarily need to play a lead role in the effort.