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New immigration, investment program hailed as boon for Franklin County

Posted Oct. 25, 2011, at 4:10 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 25, 2011, at 6:28 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A new federal program in Franklin County that allows the state to offer green cards and permanent residency in exchange for foreign investment in Maine businesses was hailed Tuesday as a job creator.

State Department of Economic Development Commissioner George Gervais announced the creation of a regional center though the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services immigrant investor pilot program, known as EB-5.

The center — to be called USA Lifestyles, Inc. — includes all of Franklin County in addition to Livermore Falls in Androscoggin County.

Under the EB-5 program, which has been in place since 1990, foreign investors who commit at least $500,000 to businesses within a designated geographic area and create at least 10 jobs, directly or indirectly, are granted green cards.

Essentially, the program makes it more attractive for foreign investors because, once they have valid residency in Maine — through the green card — their investment is taxed at a much lower rate.

There are dozens of EB-5 centers designated throughout the country but this is the first in Maine.

Christopher Farmer, general manager of Saddleback Maine ski resort and the new president of USA Lifestyles, Inc., said the recent news could be huge for an economically depressed part of the state.

“Growing up in Franklin County, I watched hundreds of good quality manufacturing jobs disappear from the area,” Farmer said during Tuesday’s announcement at the State House. “This is a unique opportunity to bring investment dollars back from those areas to Franklin County and create good-paying, long-term jobs.”

The process for bringing an EB-5 center to Maine goes back to 2008 when Foster Chandler, a marketing strategist for Saddleback, explained that Jay Peak Resort in Vermont had benefited greatly from an EB-5 regional center there.

The Greater Franklin Development Corp. provided funding for a grant application to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. By 2010, Saddleback was joined in the application by Otis Ventures, a firm formed to redevelop the James River Otis Mill in Jay, which closed a year earlier.

Earlier this year, the passage of the regulatory reform bill known as LD 1 directed Maine’s DECD to collaborate with agencies and businesses to apply for an EB-5 center. Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, was instrumental in pushing for that application.

Once state officials heard work already had begun on an application for Franklin County, the DECD lent its support.

“We have a group in Franklin County being the first to bring this new economic development tool to Maine, a tool for creating jobs in Maine for Maine people that doesn’t use taxpayer assistance,” DECD Commissioner Gervais said.

Under the EB-5 program approved for Franklin County, investment is targeted toward ski lodges and resorts, restaurants and retail, the wood products industry, construction and testing laboratories.

Gervais said that while no investors have stepped forward, his office has seen some interest. However, just because the EB-5 center has been established doesn’t mean investment is guaranteed.

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