Chinese funding Florida charter schools
By Meisha Perrin
Investment money is pouring into Florida from wealthy Chinese who find that Florida has exactly what they are looking for — and what they need to secure US green cards.
Chinese investors are taking advantage of the EB-5 investment visa program, the so-called "green card via red carpet," by putting millions into Florida's charter schools and an aquaculture farm in Central Florida.
Under the EB-5 program, through investments of at least $1 million — or $500,000 for "targeted employment areas" — foreign nationals are able to obtain legal residency in the US so long as the money they invest will help secure or create at least 10 full-time jobs.
A group of Chinese investors have put $30 million into the state's charter school program to date and are looking to invest three times that amount in the next year, Ilona Vega Jaramillo, director of international business development for Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development arm, said in a US-China roundtable discussion last week.
She would not name any of the investors, citing confidentiality.
In addition, about 12 other Chinese investors have put their $500,000 into a $16 million aquaculture project on 100 acres in Fellsmere, FL.
The project, according to Clifford Morris, president of Florida Organic Aquaculture, provides a controlled, natural and sustainable way to grow Pacific white shrimp. The shrimps' by-product in the water, which is not discharged into the environment, is fed to oysters that then filter it to be put into a lined open pond that grows sea asparagus.
In an enclosed, insulated building, he said, the shrimp and oysters can be produced 365 days a year and have 10 times the yield of a traditional farm. Produce from the farm, initially, will be sold to markets as far as Jacksonville and Miami, he said.
The Chinese investors, he said, have shown great interest in carrying the sustainable shrimp-producing process back to China.
Investors are aware of future food shortages, Mr. Morris said, so they do understand the need for sustainable food production.
"All of our investors want us to bring it back to China, which obviously we would do," he said. "But our first objective is to get this project up and running and fine-tuned here in Fellsmere."
South American investors have also shown "encouraging" interest in the project, Mr. Morris said, and at least another 34 Chinese investors are going through the qualification process, though only 32 investors are needed. The total money raised so far for the aquaculture farm is $10 million — all from EB-5 investments.
The project is expected to break ground in January, and Mr. Morris said he hopes to have enough money from the EB-5 investment escrow so the construction can be non-stop.
The EB-5 program, so-called because it represents a fifth category of employment-based immigration, was started by the US government to help the economy through job creation and capital investment. Investors who qualify are granted permanent US residency, although they are not required to live in the US.
There are about 20 regional EB-5 visa centers throughout Florida, and City of Miami officials are in the process of applying to the federal government for an investment visa regional center at City Hall.
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