World Trade Center Savannah launches long-awaited EB-5 Regional Center

Clark Byron

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

At Tuesday’s meeting of the World Trade Center Savannah board of directors, a revolutionary project took a giant step closer to becoming a reality. The WTCSavannah board under the direction of Chairman Eric Johnson last November approved a plan to move forward to hire a consultant that will lead the effort to establish an EB-5 Regional Center in Savannah. Arnold “Arnie” Sherman was selected as the expert consultant on the EB-5 initiative.

At the final board meeting before summer, Johnson presented all the necessary documents to form the EB-5 center, including a separate set of articles of organization and a partnership agreement with WTCSavannah.

The official name of the new EB-5 is the Savannah World Trade Center for Investment. The name was made public by Brynn Grant, COO of SEDA and vice president of WTCSavannah. “We wanted Savannah first,” said Grant. This is a project Grant has been invested in from since the beginning, as have many board members and staffers. When the official approval came to pursue the EB-5 Regional Center last November, Grant commented, “We are thrilled that SEDA has agreed to pursue EB-5. In addition to attracting investment and creating jobs, it will generate revenue that can support this operation. It’s one of the big rocks our board has been focused on since before we even received our World Trade Center license.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board approved the organizational and partnership documents between WTCSavannah, LLC and the Savannah World Trade Center for Investment, thus officially launching the long-awaited EB-5.

EB-5 is a federal program designed to attract foreign investment to the United States. The EB-5 is a visa for Immigrant Investors in the United States created by the Immigration Act of 1990. The visa provides a fast-track to obtaining a green card for foreign nationals who invest money in doing business in the U.S. EB-5 targets foreign investment to enhance rural and exurban employment in areas where the unemployment rate is 150 percent of the national average. However, foreign investors' participation in the EB-5 program has been much lower than Congress had hoped for in the beginning. Still, EB-5 remains an excellent tool for attracting foreign investment in Savannah and around the country. 

Johnson said that the EB-5 Regional Center articles of organization and other documents were vetted by SEDA’s attorneys. “One of the things that [the attorneys] determined was that, because of our connection to SEDA, any EB-5 project has to be within Chatham County,” said Johnson. “We are pushing back on that,” he said. “We disagree, but that’s our attorney’s opinion, so certainly for our first qualifying project, it will be within Chatham County’s borders. Once we’re approved, we could possibly revisit the restriction.”

Trip Tollison, president and CEO of SEDA and WTCSavannah, explained the restrictions placed on SEDA by the state constitution. “SEDA’s constitutional powers as created by the constitution of the State of Georgia only allow us to perform our economic development functions in Chatham County,” said Tollison. “We cannot provide incentives or anything else in any other county.” Tollison said the organization’s leadership was distirbed to learn that because SEDA is funding 80 to 85 percent of the WTCSavannah’s operating budget, attorneys advised that, at least in the beginning, the EB-5 program operate only within the confines of Chatham County. Tollison explained that the strategy is to get a project up and running, and when the EB-5 center is established, the goal will be for SEDA to get out of it and let it stand on its own. “Then, the other counties and everybody else can participate and come to the EB-5 center for whatever investment project they may have,” said Tollison. “Once we get the project up and running and monies are coming in, our hope is to turn it over to a self-governing body who can accept projects from anywhere.” WTCSavannah board member Scott Center said that at this time, there has been no project outside of Chatham County presented to them yet.  

Immediately following the WTCSavannah board meeting Tuesday, SEDA also held its final board meeting before the summer recess. At that meeting, the SEDA board repeated the WTCSavannah board’s unanimous vote to approve the Savannah World Trade Center for Investment. Both SEDA and WTCSavannah will resume normal board activities in August.