If David Hart gets his way, Miami Beach's 42-room Astor Hotel will be on a hiring spree this year as it adds concierge service, a rooftop pool, an all-night diner, spa and private-car service available 24 hours a day.
New hires will be crucial to Hart's business plan, since foreign investors have agreed to pay about $50,000 for each job created by the Art Deco boutique hotel.
The Miami immigration lawyer specializes in arranging visas for wealthy foreign citizens under a special program that trades green cards for investment dollars. Businesses get the money and must use it to boost payroll. The minimum investment is $500,000 to add at least 10 jobs to the economy. That puts the pressure on Hart and his partners at the Astor to beef up payroll dramatically, with plans to take a hotel with roughly 20 employees to one with as many as 100 workers.
"My primary responsibility is to make something happen here over the next two years that will create the jobs we need," Hart said a few steps away from a nearly empty restaurant on a recent weekday morning. "It's all going to be transformed."
Though established in the 1990s, the EB-5 visas soared in popularity during the recession as developers sought foreign cash to replace dried-up credit markets in the United States.
Chinese investors dominate the transactions, accounting for about 65 percent of the nearly 9,000 EB-5 visas granted since 2006. South Korea finishes a distant second at 12 percent, and the United Kingdom holds the third-place slot at 3 percent. If Latin America and the Caribbean were one country, they would rank No. 4 on the list, with 231 EB-5 visas granted, or about 3 percent of the total.
Competition has gotten stiffer for the deep-pocketed foreign investors willing to pay for green cards. This year, the city of Miami itself is expected to get into the business by setting up an EB-5 program to raise foreign cash for a range of city businesses and developments. The first would be the tallest building in the city -- developer Tibor Hollo's planned 85-story apartment tower, the Panorama, in downtown Miami.
Other governments have gotten into the EB-5 business, too. Dallas set up an EB-5 center in 2009. Vermont's governor, Pete Shumlin, was in Miami recently to pitch his state's EB-5 program to visiting investors.
With a construction cost of about $700 million, Miami's debut EB-5 venture hopes to raise about $100 million from foreign investors, said Laura Reiff, the Greenberg Traurig lawyer in Virginia working with Miami on the EB-5 effort. "This is a marquis project," she said.
The arrangement would allow Hollo and future participants to tout the city of Miami's endorsement when competing with other projects for EB-5 dollars. "We will have the benefit of the brand of the city of Miami," said Mikki Canton, the $6,000-a-month city consultant heading Miami's EB-5 effort. "A lot of these others are privately owned and they won't have that brand."
She said the Hollo project will be crucial for getting Miami's EB-5 designation approved in Washington, but that the program will be open to all local businesses that qualify. She sees the city's effort as a way to make EB-5 funding more affordable to Miami businesses that don't have the funds to pursue an EB-5 designation in the private sector.
Miami will set up a committee of city department heads to screen potential projects EB-5 for consideration, followed by approval by a panel of outside experts on the program, Canton said. "We really want to have a strong say in the projects," she said. "We want to make sure the projects do create jobs and spur economic development."
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