AUGUSTA – Though similar efforts have failed elsewhere, state officials are optimistic that an effort to lure foreign investors through a specialized visa program would be successful in Maine.

The concept is simple: Offer permanent green cards to foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in a region. The investment must create or sustain at least 10 jobs, directly or indirectly.

Investors who apply successfully are granted two-year conditional visas, then get green cards if all the conditions are met. Visas and green cards are available for the investor, their spouse and their children until they turn 21.

Private groups or state agencies can become clearinghouses for foreign investment in businesses by applying to the federal government to create “regional centers.”

In Maine, proponents hope to replicate the success of Vermont, which has attracted more than $200 million in foreign investment and created thousands of jobs in recent years.

But a rigorous application process, lack of overseas advertising and the steep investment minimum has hindered most of the 100-plus centers in 32 states.

“For us, it’s been wildly successful,” said James Candido, a specialist in Vermont’s Department of Economic Development. “I would caution that we’re one of roughly five or six regional centers ever to have an investor get a green card.”

Candido said it’s the only state-run program, which lends credibility. Vermont’s established reputation for success also helps, he said.

Regional centers can be any size, he said. Vermont’s covers the whole state.

“A lot of the private regional centers will just take on any project to try and make money off of it, and we just don’t do that,” Candido said.

An effort in Iowa aimed at attracting investment in dairy farming was abandoned for lack of investors, said a state official. With a new governor, a broader effort has begun.

“There wasn’t enough interest because we were so limited in the kinds of investments that we would accept,” said Karen Merrick of the Iowa Innovation Corp. “So we are changing our investment targets to coincide with our industry strengths within the state.”

Merrick estimated that it would cost Iowa $50,000 to $100,000 in legal fees to revamp and restart the program.

Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development has been told by the Legislature to apply to the federal government for approval to create a regional center. The initiative — passed as a provision in L.D. 1, the law aimed at reducing red tape and improving Maine’s business climate — was led by state Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco.

Valentino said she heard about the program from foreign parents of students at Thornton Academy in Saco who wanted to invest locally.

“It’s a very small investment for a potential for a huge return, not just in the money, venture capital and investments coming into the state of Maine, but also for the job opportunities,” she said.

George Gervais, Maine’s economic and community development commissioner, said his department is negotiating with at least one company that already has applied to become a regional center, to try to merge the applications. Rather than have a company target one area of the state for investment, officials would like the whole state to benefit.

“We want a statewide, state-run regional development center out of this effort,” he said. “If it’s government-run, then it’s an advantage, and I’m trying to get private entities to see that because I think that’s important for their success and what their goals are.”

Gervais said that if he cannot persuade the company to team up, the state will continue with an application of its own.

Gervais and Valentino say it would take many months for the state to win federal approval as a regional center, but the cost of the program would be low and the potential for economic development would be high.

“It’s foolish for us to ignore this opportunity. There’s a return on our investment here that will be well worth the pursuit,” Gervais said.

Valentino said she’s optimistic that Maine is positioned to succeed despite the failure of others, in part because of the ties many wealthy foreign investors already have to the state.

“Your most precious commodity is your children, and if you are sending your children here to the state of Maine to get an education for the next four years, then certainly this is going to be a place where you are going to feel comfortable to invest your money,” she said. “I think that there would be an immediate influx of millions of dollars.” 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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