Wilson Chen arrived from China with $3,000 to his name. Now he is the president of the company that owns Portland's KOIN Center in downtown Portland. // PHOTO BY LEAH NASH
However, if the developer fails to prove that the foreign investor has created 10 jobs, the government will not grant the investor a green card. The jobs must be deemed sustainable after a two-year conditional period.
“You need to deliver,” says Chen. “You need to give the proof of the jobs.”
Chen earned his PhD from Oregon State University in 1996. He started an environmental consulting firm but found it difficult to bring in work because of language and cultural barriers. So he used his computer skills and work ethic to find information technology positions during the dot-com boom years. Even as that bubble burst, China continued its rise. Chen began to hear from family friends who were interested in moving money into the West once the timing seemed right. The investment group grew, and when the time came Chen and his backers pounced aggressively on dramatically undervalued assets. They bought the KOIN Center for about $50 million less than the $106 million the California Public Employees’ Retirement System paid for the building in 2007 after CalPERS defaulted on a $70 million loan.
Their EB-5 strategy will have to be more methodical, tied as it is to government approvals. They plan to start small with a pilot project out of the Oregon Pacific building in downtown Portland. Formerly the home of the Greek Cusina restaurant shut down by the city for fire code violations, the building would be renovated into a mixed-use development financed by 15 foreign investors hoping to gain green cards.
“The Oregon Pacific project is very small,” says Chen. “We want to make sure we are taking a conservative, safe path in all our projects. We took about six months to prepare our application, just to do a lot of research. Because once it starts it won’t stop. This will be the first but it will be followed by others.”