ALBANY, N.Y. — It is an audacious plan that seems out of place for the Catskills: a $6 billion China-themed cultural, business and amusement park to be built on 2,200 acres of forest and former farmland nearly two hours from New York City.
China City of America has been pitched as a showcase for the country’s traditions, a boon for the distressed former Borscht Belt region and an opportunity for prosperous Chinese to invest $500,000 each through an immigration program that would grant them U.S. visas and a path to citizenship.
Local reaction was a mix of puzzlement and anger in the Sullivan County towns of Thompson and Mamakating.
“The take was, ‘Really?’ People were dumbfounded,” said Bill Rieber, the Thompson town supervisor. “It immediately generated a lot of opposition.”
Details of the project first appeared on a Web site in late 2011, and it was formally announced in 2012. As recently as mid-May, the full project, including homes for 1,000 families and the possibility of a casino to be built over several years, was still on the table at a meeting of Thompson’s municipal boards.
The people behind China City have since dialed back the pace of their plans, now proposing to start with a college, dorms and faculty housing on 575 acres solely in Thompson after strong opposition surfaced in Mamakating. And the original Web site touting the project appears to have been taken down.
But Sherry Li, the chief executive of China City of America, told the Associated Press that the goal is still to pursue the entire project, concentrating more in Thompson, a town of 15,000.
“We haven’t cut back our sizes,” she said. “We’re going to be doing it step by step.”
Li said the school, known as the Thompson Education Center, would be a tax-paying, for-profit college enrolling 900 students at first, with a curriculum concentrated on business, art and entertainment majors. The college would grow to 3,000 students, many of whom Li expects would come from China. A second phase of construction would include guest lodging and a conference center.
A Long Island resident who came to the United States 23 years ago when she was 19, Li said her background is in development and finance and she’s confident about raising the $150 million for the first phase. She said $60 million will come from 120 families applying through the federal Immigrant Investor Program, or EB-5. The program established in 1990 allows foreign investors who create or preserve a certain number of jobs to apply for citizenship after five years. An additional $30 million would come from private equity investment and $60 million through borrowing.
Environmentalists say the project can’t be developed on the scale proposed by China City without damaging sensitive wetlands vital to the health of the 2,200-acre Basha Kill Wildlife Management Area, one of New York’s largest freshwater marshes. State regulators are closely watching the project.
“It’s pretty much untouched. It’s not just any podunk wetlands,” said Paula Medley, president of the Basha Kill Area Association and a leader of the environmental movement against China City.
Li insisted that her land-use and other experts have a plan that will meet local zoning and include “green” technology in the construction and operations.
Another controversy arose in December when the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tighter immigration restrictions, posted an article criticizing the project and its use of the EB-5 program and reporting speculation Chinese government money is behind it.
David North, the author and a fellow at the center, said the EB-5 element is “based on a broad part of the immigration law for people with nothing else to recommend them but money to get visas ahead of everyone else.”
China City immigration lawyer Larry Behar lashed back in a news release that said the center was “spreading xenophobia that smacks of classic McCarthy-era behavior.”
North denied any racist agenda. “It doesn’t matter to me if this is all Chinese or all Swedish. This is a bad project,” he said.
Li said no Chinese government money is invested in her project.
After seeing a series of big proposed developments come and go, including pitches for Indian casino resorts, Rieber said his town has a “believe-it-when-you-see-it” attitude.
He said the town, which also is considered a likely place for one of the Las Vegas-style casinos voters have approved for upstate, still hasn’t been given a site plan by China City. He expects officials to have a lot of questions for Li and her experts at a meeting Wednesday.
“We’re used to grand plans,” Rieber said. “Most people don’t think they’re going to happen.”