SBJ/March 13-19, 2017/Facilities

A small world after all: How visa program helped pay bills

A novel financing concept has raised funds to pay for nearly 20 percent of Orlando City Stadium.

Orlando City SC majority owner Flavio Augusto da Silva, whose team is privately funding the project, says the club has generated nearly $30 million through the EB-5 visa program. The federal program, established in 1990 to draw funding for building projects, rewards foreign investors who put their money into projects that create jobs with green cards.

DA SILVA
In Orlando it has attracted 60 wealthy families from around the globe to move to the U.S., where they have all invested $500,000 toward construction of the $155 million stadium.

The process for approving a project takes about 18 months after it first applies for EB-5 status, da Silva said.

The EB-5 program has been a topic of controversy politically. Critics of the program say it’s a pathway for terrorists entering the U.S., and there have been cases of fraud and corruption reportedly tied to EB-5.

Given the upheaval over President Donald Trump’s attempts to reform immigration laws, the program’s future is in question, although his extended family reportedly has used EB-5 visas to attract Chinese investors to help fund a Trump-branded hotel in New Jersey.

In central Florida, Orlando City SC officials say EB-5 is a good thing. The stadium project generated 1,000 new jobs locally. In addition, the children of those families are educated in better schools in the U.S. and their families bring an infusion of new money to the country.

“I think it’s very good for the local economy and the U.S. to attract wealthy people that have a net worth of $100 million to $200 million,” da Silva said.

Families from Argentina, China, India, Mexico and Brazil have all invested in the stadium project. Most are from Brazil, da Silva’s native country. The team’s goal is to attract 40 more families to reach a total of $50 million through the EB-5 program, he said.

The 45-year-old team owner knows EB-5 well. In 2009, he tapped into the program to get his green card by investing in a ski resort hotel in Vermont. It’s a method many wealthy internationals have used to protect their families from potential life-threatening situations abroad.

Initially, da Silva became wealthy by launching a company in Brazil to teach English to adults. It spread to 400 schools across five countries, and he later sold the business to a Latin American media firm.

He turned to the EB-5 program as a funding source for the stadium after buying the soccer team in 2013. At that point, the project was a public-private partnership with a cost of $110 million. But two years ago, after the state of Florida would not supply $30 million in funding toward construction, Orlando City SC had to come up with another plan to pay for the project. On his own, da Silva decided to privately fund the entire project and use the EB-5 program to help plug the gap in financing. The project ultimately grew in scope and cost to $155 million to meet the demand for MLS in Orlando.

“The first problem was we needed a bigger stadium and the second problem was the pushback on funding,” da Silva said. “We needed $30 million more and we ended up losing $30 million [after the state pulled out]. I remembered EB-5 and I talked to immigration lawyers and the regional centers that select and approve projects. In the span of a week, we raised the stadium budget from $110 million to more than $150 million. I had to guarantee it with my personal assets to make EB-5 happen. Not to say it was a risk, but it was not my original plan. In execution, it was a success.”

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