Foreign investor program may remain to create jobs in Whatcom County

Nov 10, 2011

The Bellingham Herald

Dave Gallagher

November 10, 2011

Creating jobs is crucial to getting the local economy back on track, so a pilot program successful in doing that might be sticking around.

Earlier this week U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, unveiled legislation to make permanent a program that has created hundreds of jobs in Whatcom County over the past three years.

The bill is called the Creating American Jobs Through Foreign Capital Act and would make permanent the EB-5 pilot program, which allows qualified foreigners who make a major investment in U.S. businesses a chance to become residents of this country. Currently foreigners would need to invest $500,000 that results in creating or saving 10 full-time jobs.

The program has been particularly beneficial locally for the construction of retirement facilities, resulting in $34 million in investments and creating 800 direct or indirect jobs, said David Andersson, president and CEO of Whatcom Opportunities Regional Center. Examples of local projects helped by foreign investment include Bryce Park Retirement, a residential community of 64 homes and a clubhouse, currently under construction in Lynden; Correll Commons, a completed 125-unit adult community in Ferndale; and Garden Green Retirement Community, which is just getting started and will have 85 condominiums in Lynden.

Larsen said he is introducing legislation now because the pilot program, which was first established in 1990 and renewed several times, is set to expire Sept. 30, 2012. He pointed out that more than 20 similar programs exist in countries across the world and letting it lapse would give those countries a competitive advantage in luring foreign investment.

In choosing retirement facilities as investment projects, Whatcom Opportunities Regional Center has helped one of the hardest-hit industries during this economic downturn - residential construction builders. Gordy Harris, general manager at Westside Building Supply, said the program has saved about 10 percent of his workforce from either being laid off or shifted to part-time work. He estimated about 30 percent of the company's residential projects are related to this program.

Larsen is gathering support among other legislators to make sure the bill is passed before the expiration. One of the challenges is that it involves immigration, a hot-button term. Just the word "immigration" can slow things down, but the term "economic development" can help speed up its passage, he said.

The EB-5 program has provided economic development in communities across the country, so Larsen is confident that the bill will get the support it needs to pass.