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Commentary

EB-5 regional center could have lasting impact

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 10:24 PM

The employment based EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program is a federal program administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is housed in the Department of Homeland Security. It is designed to stimulate the economy through job creation and capital investment by foreign investors. It may not be as sexy as chickens, "Setima-Septima" or Internet cafes, but it can have a long-lasting, positive economic effect for years to come.

Last Thursday, a majority of Tampa City Council members approved a resolution urging Mayor Bob Buckhorn to implement a public-private Employment-Based EB-5 Regional Center in Tampa. Now it's up to the mayor to implement it or, according to our city charter, he has the option to ignore council's urging.

As the title states, the Employment-Based EB-5 Program is a tool that when used properly has the potential to bring hundreds of millions of dollars to our city and create thousands of jobs, as it has in other cities and states. Since 2003 the program has produced investments of more than $3.1 billion in foreign capital to the U.S. economy, creating more than 65,000 jobs for U.S. workers.

We are not often given such an opportunity in one lifetime. And for that reason I was meticulous in my research. The facts I presented were correct and verifiable. Unfortunately, that was not the case with others. The mayor's response and the information provided to him were at best incomplete and in some instances misleading.

For example, in the March 8 issue of The Tampa Tribune ("Council urges mayor to lure foreign investors," front page), reporter Kevin Wiatrowski wrote: "The EB-5 centers in other cities, most notably Chicago, have come under federal investigation for corruption. Buckhorn said he doesn't want to see that happen here."

Neither do I.

Although these statements are correct on their face, they also are incomplete and misleading. What is being investigated in Chicago is a private EB-5 center that operated with inadequate vetting or oversight.

That is one of the reasons vetted public or public-private EB-5 regional centers have been so successful. They inspire a high level of confidence for investors and the business community.

But that is not how Bob McDonaugh, the city's economic development chief, presently manages Tampa's EB-5 effort. The way it's done in the city is to steer the project to a private EB-5 center, provide no oversight and hope for the best.

To be fair, the mayor has a different way of stating it: "An arm's-length relationship with an EB-5 developer would be favorable to one initiated or operated by the city, he [Buckhorn] said," according to the article.

But even in an arms-length relationship with an EB-5 developer, the city will still be involved. And, the city could be held responsible. Whichever way it's stated, the city maintains a relationship with a private EB-5 center with little or no control or oversight.

Because the administration is funneling business to a private EB-5 center, the city's fingerprints will be all over the place. Even with an "arms-length" relationship it will be difficult for the administration to deny the city's involvement.

What I proposed has many layers of oversight and was described by attorney Bill Flynn at a city council session as "bulletproof."

The mayor should look into how a private EB-5 company operates in Chicago. However, it is even more important to look at how we in Tampa presently operate and manage the city's EB-5 efforts.

A fact-finding committee was authorized by city council to study and bring forth information and comparisons of the various existing EB-5 programs throughout the nation. Supporters outside the committee include The Tampa Tribune Editorial Board, Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano and Congresswoman Katy Castor.

Should the mayor decide to move forward with a Tampa Employment-Based EB-5 Center, community and business leaders stand ready to help.

We have a common goal to bring quality economic development to our city. I brought the EB-5 center proposal to council, and council approved it. Now the mayor has an important decision to make. I urge him to seek the best people and the best sources of information available to him.


Yvonne Yolie Capin serves on Tampa City Council.
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