AUGUSTA – Franklin County and Livermore Falls have been granted a federal designation that will help them attract foreign investors, Maine’s Economic and Community Development Commissioner George Gervais announced Tuesday.

The designation gives foreign nationals a path to green cards and residency in the United States if they invest in businesses in a regional center comprising Franklin County and Livermore Falls, in Androscoggin County. The minimum investment is $500,000 and the investment must create at least 10 jobs directly or indirectly.

The jobs would be filled by people who live in the area, Gervais said.

The investments must be targeted to ski lodges and resorts, testing laboratories, wood products manufacturing, restaurants, those who lease nonresidential buildings, museums and construction, said Christopher Farmer, general manager of Saddleback Mountain and the driving force behind the initiative.

“Growing up in Franklin County, I watched hundreds of good quality manufacturing jobs disappear from the area, leaving the state for foreign lands,” Farmer said at a State House news conference. “This is a unique opportunity to bring investment dollars back from those areas to Franklin County and create good-paying, long-term jobs.”

Even before Tuesday’s announcement, Farmer said, he was contacted by potential investors. The ski area hopes to expand as part of a 10-year plan.

Farmer first heard about the federal program in 2008, when a marketing strategist mentioned that the Jay Peak Resort in Vermont and the state of Vermont had achieved success with it. The visa program has attracted more than $200 million in foreign investment and created thousands of jobs in Vermont in recent years.

In 2009, the Greater Franklin Development Corp. in Maine approved a grant to help pay the legal costs involved in applying to form a regional center.

USA Lifestyles Inc. is the name of the regional center, which is a venture involving the development corporation, Saddleback Mountain and Otis Ventures.

Farmer said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, helped the group get through federal red tape.

The regional center is the first in Maine to get the federal designation, which has been granted to more than 100 centers in 32 states.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers asked the state to apply for the designation as part of a law aimed at improving Maine’s business climate. The idea came from Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, who heard about the program from parents of foreign students at Thornton Academy.

For foreign families with money to invest, the program provides a way to move to the United States to take advantage of the educational system, Gervais said. The state is not a part of the new regional center, but will monitor its success to determine whether a similar program can be started in other parts of the state or statewide, he said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]