WARNER ROBINS — As City Council plans for the development of a hotel and conference center beside City Hall, one part of a financing package it is considering has come under public scrutiny.
Two people voiced concerns to the council last week about a foreign investment program it is considering to attract developers to build, own and manage the hotel and conference center.
The city has wanted a hotel and conference center for years, and several months ago the council began considering a new option to drive the project forward after city leaders were approached by NYSA Capital, an advisory and finance management consultant group that deals with employment-based immigration visas.
“They said, ‘We’ve always heard that you’ve wanted a hotel and conference center downtown. We have a way that you might can get it,’” Mayor Randy Toms said of NYSA.
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NYSA encouraged the council to consider a program called EB-5, one of five options created in 1990 by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for foreigners seeking employment-based immigration visas. Its purpose is to incentivize investment for commercial development that will create jobs in “target employment areas” identified by the federal government, according to the USCIS website.
Sandra Bracy, general manager of Candlewood Suites on Willie Lee Parkway in Warner Robins, voiced concerns earlier this week at a council meeting.
“Although we are all for continued growth for our city and embracing any opportunities for increasing visitors to our city, our biggest concern in the business is why not let the local developers and our local business owners in our community build these properties?” Bracy said.
Councilman Keith Lauritsen told Bracy the council is looking into that possibility.
Should the council choose to include the program in its plans, a number of foreigners would each invest $500,000 to $1 million towards building the hotel and conference center. For investors to receive a visa, each investment must directly result in the permanent and full-time employment of at least 10 American citizens. EB-5 investors may or may not see a return depending on the success of the development.
Resident David Cooke also addressed the council with concerns about EB-5. Citing recent articles in Forbes and Fortune magazines, he called it a “glorified green card program that is mired in over a dozen federal Security Exchange Commission fraud investigations.”
Initially, Toms said he was hesitant upon hearing the term “green card,” but he has since changed his mind after learning more about the program.
“I think it’s legitimate and I think it’s a good thing, but when I realized how long it was going to take, that was what threw me a curve,” Toms said, adding it could take two to three years to break ground using the program. “It’s still an option, but it’s just one option.”
Toms said the council also is considering hosting a forum with regional and “local developers to find out if any of them are interested in moving forward with a project like this.” However, that option has not been discussed in recent meetings.
“I think a little bit, we might have put the cart before the horse,” Toms said. “But not completely, because I didn’t hitch it up. ... In essence, we can still bring the horse around. I just think that we need to exhaust all local and regional possibilities before we move on to something like an EB-5 program.”
The city has not made any agreements with NYSA and no decisions have been made about the program, Toms said.
Councilman Tim Thomas called the EB-5 program “a screwdriver in a tool bag” for redevelopment.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about it,” Thomas recently said of the EB-5 program. “There aren’t the grants (available) that used to be out there. The federal government has shrunk what they’re giving us. So, we’re stuck now trying to figure out now how we can make redevelopment happen without raising taxes.”
Thomas said no tax dollars will go into the hotel-conference center project regardless of which option is chosen. He said and the EB-5 investment would be used to build a hotel and conference center owned by an American company.
“As an elected official, I feel that we should never turn down development, especially in an area that needs a shot in the arm,” Thomas said. “Since 2008, EB-5 has contributed $8.6 billion to local governments in America. It has created 171,000 American jobs ... When we as a country send billions of dollars to other countries every year, I have no problem using their money to build our city.”
Thomas said the investors will have no ownership in the buildings and “before they ever get a visa to come to this country, the project has to be completed and they have to create 10 jobs.”
Betsy Loiacono, who is challenging Thomas for City Council Post 4, has been vocal about her opposition to the program on social media.
“I believe Warner Robins holds all the resources necessary to solve the challenges our community faces,” Loiacono said in an emailed statement to The Telegraph. “I don’t think the answer to the economic difficulties we’re facing is to sell Warner Robins property off to foreign nationals. ... I don’t believe we’ve fully discussed better alternatives than selling off our land and our tax breaks to China. I think our local officials could be and should be doing a better job of recruiting good companies to move to Warner Robins.”
Toms said there is currently no timeline for when the council must decide whether it will participate in EB-5.
For more information about the EB-5 program, visit the USCIS website.
To contact writer Laura Corley, call 744-4334 or follow her on Twitter @Lauraecor.