BY BEN JACKLET
Wilson Chen looks out the window of Suite 820 of the Portland skyscraper his company owns and smiles. “This was the first big deal that we had in the U.S.,” he says. “It was an unforgettable event for us. We put a lot of money into this building. We are taking good care of it.”
As if on cue, a window washer belays down to spray liquid onto the glass and wipe it clean, and Chen laughs for the first time of the interview.
Chen came to Oregon from China with $3,000 to his name 17 years ago. Then he was a poor graduate student. Today he is the president of the company that owns Portland’s iconic KOIN Center, along with five hotels in San Francisco and a huge soybean oil factory and a five-star oceanside resort in his hometown of Shantou in Guangdong Province.
Chen’s buying spree as president and CEO of Portland-based American Pacific International Capital was made possible by the recession. But it is not over now that the recession has passed, because the money he represents — direct foreign investment from Asia and especially China — is growing exponentially. The soft-spoken former hydrologist plans to buy more buildings this summer as another wave of troubled properties washes back to the banks. He is also positioning himself to make prosperous use of a once obscure but now red-hot government program that enables foreigners to earn “green cards,” signifying lawful permanent residency, by investing directly in new or troubled U.S. companies and creating American jobs.
The federal EB-5 program, as it is known, already has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars from Chinese investors into Vermont ski resorts, Hollywood hotels and Seattle real estate. Soon it could be financing woody biomass projects in struggling Oregon timber towns, adult-care facilities on the Oregon Coast, massive urban redevelopment projects in Portland and even the long-stalled Columbia River Crossing bridge project.
During the period in which Chen went from being a broke grad student in Corvallis analyzing watershed run-off to a well connected financier snapping up hotels and factories, China evolved from a nation of potential to one of destiny: the world’s second-largest economy, the U.S. government’s largest creditor and Oregon’s top trading partner. As China’s powerful economic growth continues, Chinese investors with newfound wealth are moving into the U.S. economy at a rate not seen since Japan’s golden era in the 1980s.
“We’ve got an opportunity now,” says Tim McCabe, director of Business Oregon, the state’s economic development arm. “There are a lot of investors in China, and a lot of money… We’re seeing a lot more activity, and this is just getting started.”