If the Tampa Bay Rays ever get a new stadium, it might come with an assist from an unlikely source — wealthy Chinese immigrants.
Chamber of commerce leaders from Tampa and St. Petersburg who have been studying how to pay for a new Rays stadium landed on an obscure federal immigration program called EB-5 that might help with the half-billion-dollar tab.
Under the program, foreigners willing to invest at least $500,000 each to create jobs in the United States can qualify for a green card for themselves and their families. Essentially, affluent foreigners can buy their way into a life in America — and the majority are coming from China.
If enough would-be immigrants cobble their money together, it theoretically could fund at least part of a stadium.
In Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, the EB-5 program is providing up to $228 million for a massive new retail, housing and basketball arena complex for the New Jersey Nets, according to a recent Bloomberg News report.
Chuck Sykes, co-chairman of the Tampa chamber group, has his eye on the program. He was traveling last week and responded to a reporter's questions by e-mail.
"Yes, we have explored EB-5 visa financing," Sykes wrote. "There may be a role for it in financing a stadium."
Sound farfetched? Maybe not, suggested Bill Flynn, a Tampa immigration lawyer who has worked on EB-5 deals.
"Yes, of course it could be used in a sports funding method, as long as you play by the rules of the game," Flynn said.
Sykes and 13 other business leaders from the cities' chambers of commerce have met for nearly a year to study how to pay for a new Rays stadium. They're convinced the team needs a replacement for Tropicana Field, but they aren't tackling the toughest question: where to put it.
Even the hint of a stadium in Tampa would surely upset people in St. Petersburg.
For now, Sykes' group is trying hard to find a source of funding that doesn't rely heavily on local governments. And the EB-5 program seems to fit the bill.
The federal government created it 22 years ago, but it has exploded in popularity in the past few years as real estate developers and cities try to raise money to build hotels, buy shopping centers and, occasionally, finance sports facilities.
In 2007, only 776 foreigners took the first step in the EB-5 immigration process. But that shot up to 3,805 foreigners in 2011, data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services show.
The program is open to people worldwide, but it's going gangbusters in China lately. Last year, 935 people from China won initial approval for the program; the next biggest contingent came from South Korea, where 92 people were approved.
That has investment companies from the United States scouring China, hoping to find wealthy Chinese who want to move their families here.
The number of Chinese millionaires has soared as their nation's economy booms. Introducing market-based changes has helped boost gross domestic product tenfold since 1978, according to federal research, making China the world's second-largest economy after the United States.
"We're in China probably more than we'd like to be, because it's our biggest market," said Gar Lippincott, who solicits foreign investors for his Tampa-based investment fund, Atlantic American Opportunities Fund.
The EB-5 program essentially works like this:
An indirect job, for example, might be an employee of a linen company who delivers sheets to the hotel.
The money really multiplies when dozens or hundreds of these would-be immigrants pool their money together into an investment fund. Theoretically, their combined money could be put toward a real estate development including a Rays ballpark, retail space and housing, said Robert Moreyra, co-founder of the Tampa investment company Forge Capital Partners.
Moreyra and Lippincott have been advising Sykes' chamber stadium caucus on how the EB-5 program might fund a ballpark. To be sure, a stadium would be a real test for the program. It's not clear whether a Tampa Bay area stadium could attract enough foreign investors to raise, say, $100 million or more.
Local lawyers and investment firms say they have seen EB-5 money put toward Florida hotels and shopping centers, but nothing as big as a ballpark. Still, stadium developers nationwide are eyeing the immigration program.
In Brooklyn, a developer is tapping into the program to raise $228 million for a massive $4.9 billion retail, housing and arena complex called Atlantic Yards, a recent Bloomberg News report said. The arena will house basketball's New Jersey Nets, who are soon to be renamed the Brooklyn Nets.
Meantime, the mayor of Oakland, Calif., has considered using EB-5 money to pay for a new Oakland Athletics baseball stadium. Like the Rays, the A's want a new ballpark. That city suffered a big blow to its stadium plans when some funding unrelated to EB-5 collapsed. So it's unclear if foreigners will play a role in financing an A's ballpark, Oakland city official Gregory Hunter said.
In recent months, critics have attacked the EB-5 program's results. According to the Bloomberg article, foreign investors sometimes pump money into American development projects and hope they will get a green card a couple of years later.
In reality, some projects collapse, never creating the promised jobs, and the foreigners don't get their green cards.
Advocates of the program, though, insist such horror stories are not the norm and that most projects do create jobs.
Lippincott said Chinese people hoping to move to America might welcome the chance to invest in a Rays stadium.
"We have a very open dialogue with our Chinese marketing arm, and that (a stadium) appears to be very viable," he said.