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Chinese investors checking out Texas, Austin


Delegation visits state, local officials


Laylan Copelin
May 10, 2013

Austin and Central Texas want to attract wealthy Chinese investors who are willing to trade investments of $500,000 to $1 million in exchange for an immigration visa.

The feeling is mutual, judging from a visit by 11 members of a Chinese delegation who met with state and local officials on Thursday and Friday to hear pitches for investments and get a first hand look at Texas for their wealthy clients back in China.

Chinese are the overwhelming participants in the federal EB-5 visa program, which attracted about 3,000 investors in fiscal 2012, but they mostly have invested and settled on the U.S. coasts.

Texas is getting new interest, however, thanks to its economy, its universities and Yao Ming, whose eight-year NBA career with the Houston Rockets introduced a generation of Chinese to Houston specifically and Texas in general.

Foreign investors already are financing a third of a $60 million hotel project in Georgetown and the city of Austin is considering participating in the federal visa program, which has been around since 1990.

Foreign investors can get visas for investments of $500,000 to $1 million that create at least 10 jobs. The $500,000 minimum must be targeted for rural areas or census tracts with high unemployment rates — 150 percent of the U.S. rate.

Leo Zhu, who works for Can-Reach (Pacific) Consultants, said Chinese investors initially were attracted to California because of its large Chinese-American population, but he said the younger generation is drawn to Texas.

“I’d personally prefer Texas,” Zhu said.

He echoed others in the delegation who like the state’s low taxes, friendly business climate and leading universities. But he also added a personal interest in hunting and fishing as well as the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets.

“Yao Ming helps a lot,” he said of the retired basketball center and international marketing figure. “It makes our generation know more about Texas.”

Lindsay Martin, a San Antonio lawyer who represents Chinese clients coming to the U.S., said the EB-5 program took off after the 2009 recession as U.S. firms looked for new sources for capital.

“It’s attracting the ultra high-wealth global population,” Martin said of the EB-5 program. “The foreign investor is looking for a green card more than a return on investment.”

He said a wealthy Chinese investor typically invests $500,000 and sends his or her children to live and study in the U.S.

The real payoff, Martin said, comes if the entire family follows — or more of the family wealth is later invested in the U.S.

Under the program, the foreign investor can live anywhere in the U.S., not just where the investment is made.

For Americans, the program provides cheaper capital.

Martin estimated that the interest rate in the EB-5 program is half of what a bank would charge.

“It’s become a real powerful source of capital,” Martin said. “The EB-5 money puts a project over the hump.”

Dandan Zou is the CEO of Mainstay Global consulting firm in Austin and chairwoman of the Invest in Texas Initiative, a nonprofit that organized this week’s meetings with state and local officials at the Capitol.

“There is a huge demand in China for EB-5 projects and Texas needs to promote itself if it wants a seat at the table,” she said.

Zou translated the Capitol meetings with the Chinese delegation and local officials from around the state, including Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin.

Rodriguez is chairman of the city’s EB-5 task force that has been studying the program.

He said Friday the group is expected to recommend that the city apply to become an EB-5 regional center as have other major Texas cities. He said the city also could contract with private EB-5 regional centers that are already operating in Central Texas.

It was a private regional center that made a Georgetown project possible.

Ground is expected to be broken this year on a $60 million Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center in Georgetown.

Foreign investors provided $21 million for the 225-room project being developed by Houston developer Gerald Hines at I-35 and Rivery Boulevard.

“The foreign investment was very critical,” said Jared Mermis with Mainstay Global, a consulting firm on the project.

Austin might seem a long-shot for EB-5 programs because of its 5.4 percent unemployment rate.

A minimum $500,000 investment must be in a census tract with an unemployment rate that is 150 percent of the national average. The U.S. rate is currently 7.5 percent.

But Rodriguez said he believes tracts with high employment rates in parts of East Austin could be joined with tracts with lower rates to comply with the EB-5 standards.

Otherwise, he said a $1 million investment can be made outside areas with high unemployment.

He noted Austin’s rising international image because of its technology economy, the arrival of Google and Apple, plus Formula One racing.

“If we can find the right projects,” Rodriguez said, “I don’t think foreign investment will be much of a problem.”




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