Of all the things funded in Tomás Regalado’s unprecedented $1 billion budget for 2018, his ballyhooed Office of International Business Development isn’t one of them.
The program, launched three years ago by the mayor in order to “market Miami to the world” through investment-based EB-5 visas, is in an uncertain place as Regalado prepares to end his second and final term in November. His proposed spending plan strips some $275,000 in annual funding from the program, leaving only leftover office funds to keep it open through April barring a change.
Regalado, though, remains a believer in Miami’s publicly owned EB-5 regional center — even if no one can say exactly how much money the city-owned and managed center has brought to South Florida since it opened, or how many jobs it has helped create.
The mayor says he simply wants to leave its fate to his successor.
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“In deference to the next mayor, since this office falls within the mayor’s office, the next mayor should decide whether to move all the way into next year with EB-5,” Regalado told the Miami Herald.
The office has been a success internationally.
Mayor Tomás Regalado
Regalado opened Miami’s city-owned regional center in 2014 after going through a lengthy approval process with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees the EB-5 visa program. The mission of the office, which Regalado promised would create “thousands of jobs,” was to bring millions in new investment to South Florida from outside the country.
As a regional center, the office, established and run by its lone employee, attorney Mirta “Mikki” Canton, was to serve as a fund matching foreign investors to federally qualified, city-sponsored projects. Investors who put either $500,000 or $1 million into a qualified project, depending on its location, receive a visa conditional on the requirement that their money create at least 10 long-term jobs.
In December, Miami’s first EB-5 sponsored project, Florida East Coast Realty’s Panorama Tower, closed on an offering to investors. Canton said she steered some 50 potential investors to the developer, but it’s not known how many have, or will, invest. A company spokeswoman declined to discuss how much money they raised.
It’s possible the city’s first project may be its last: There is currently speculation that Congress, which recently renewed the ’90s-era program on a year-to-year basis, may allow the EB-5 program to expire Sept. 30.
If not, the next mayor of Miami will have to weigh the costs and benefits in deciding whether to continue the endeavor. And that decision will likely have to be made with few measurables.
Our focus isn’t on the tall beautiful towers … ours is more on what the city needs to do to carry on its mission.
Mirta “Mikki” Canton
Still, Canton is fiercely proud of her accomplishments, saying Miami’s office got off the ground in “unprecedented” time even while being judicious about the projects it partners with. She also says the city is preparing an offering for the $32 million restoration of historic Miami Marine Stadium, a project that signifies a change in direction toward funding public assets such as The Underline.
“Our focus isn’t on the tall beautiful towers,” said Canton. “That’s great if private developers want to continue doing that. But ours is more on what the city needs to do to carry on its mission.”
Eventually, Canton, an informal Regalado advisor whose 2014 salary was $153,000, says the regional center’s business should pay for itself.
Until then, Regalado and Canton insist that the regional center is a work-in-progress that will eventually pay off. Regalado said lengthy, sometimes-two-year government approvals have slowed the pace of work. And yet, Angelique Brunner, a spokeswoman for the EB-5 Investment Coalition, a lobbying organization for the industry, says the city’s center appears on track to be successful, particularly when compared to government-owned EB-5 centers in places like Vermont and Michigan.
“They’ve got talent, and they seem to have government commitment and focus. That may sound normal, but it’s not normal in the industry. They do seem they’ll be able to do more with the center than some of their [publicly owned] peers,” Brunner said.
Meanwhile, she says several city commissioners have talked to her about potential government projects and initiatives that could tap into EB-5 visas as a way to supplement public money. Commissioner Francis Suarez, who has raised nearly $3 million for his mayoral campaign and has yet to draw a credible opponent, says Miami’s economy ought to make use of the investment visas as long as they remain active, but reserved judgment on the city’s office.
“I can’t really say whether it’s been successful or not successful,” Suarez said. “I may sit with Mikki at some point during the next few weeks and months depending on how things pan out to see what are her future plans.”