Firm taps into immigration program to fund D.C. project

By Jonathan O'Connell
Monday, August 16, 2010

Underdeveloped D.C. neighborhoods are on the verge of reaping millions of dollars in new investments from an unlikely source: wealthy foreigners in search of visas.

A federal immigration program that grants foreigners immigration visas in exchange for investments in American businesses is bringing $5 million to a long-awaited new Giant grocery store and mixed-use development in the city's Shaw neighborhood and also plans to finance the creation of a locally backed food store in Anacostia.

The EB-5 program grants visas to foreign individuals who make investments of $500,000 to $1 million that produce at least 10 American jobs. Though created in 1990, interest in it has soared recently, with 74 enterprises nationally and three in D.C. registered to accept investments. The resulting number of EB-5s issued nationally jumped from 1,443 in fiscal 2008 to 4,218 in fiscal 2009.

One of the local enterprises was founded by Angel Brunner, previously an official in the city's former public-private development arm, the National Capitalization Revitalization Corp., and at Fannie Mae, where she managed investments in underserved communities.

Brunner has assembled at least $5 million in commitments from foreigners interested in emigrating that she is putting into Roadside Development's CityMarket at O, a $260 million, 1 million-square-foot development planned for the two-block area between 7th and 9th streets and O and P streets in Northwest D.C. With that commitment, and a more than $100 million housing loan from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Roadside has scheduled a groundbreaking for the project Sept. 1, after years of delays. The first phase will include 395 apartments, a new 71,000-square-foot Giant store and a 180- to 190-room limited-service hotel.

"We provide capital that can put projects over the finish line," Brunner said. The responsibility of her and her partner, immigration lawyer David M. Morris, once construction starts will be to ensure that the project creates jobs at the Giant and the hotel, so her investors will receive their visas. She said she expects the project's grocery store and retail components to create 400 jobs and indirectly lead to another 1,500 in the area.

Armond Spikell, a partner at Roadside, said Brunner was providing early stage equity, which is not easy to come by for new construction in emerging markets. After researching the program, he said he realized it made sense for the Shaw development and was surprised not to have heard of it before. "If we're going to grow immigration, why not do it in a way that brings jobs and investment to the country?" he said.

Brunner -- whose company is named EB-5 Capital, after the visa program -- began with a $20 million investment in a Vermont ski resort but is now focused on job-producing projects in the District. She said she could ultimately place up to $100 million locally and that when she travels the world talking to investors, there is intense interest. "My constraint right now is qualified projects that are ready to break ground; that's what I'm looking for," she said.

She is on the verge of her next deal already. She and the Anacostia Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit that is another registered regional EB-5 center, are working on a plan to bring a locally grown foods grocer to Anacostia. Negotiations for a property and operator are underway.

"Grocery stores are ideal projects, especially in Washington," she said. "Washington residents have half the number of grocery stores that our suburban neighbors have. Any time there is a grocery store in play, it's a good opportunity for us."

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