Orlando sports owner offers green cards for stadium investment

The World
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Orlando City SC midfielder Kaka (10) and New England Revolution midfielder Scott Caldwell (6) battle for the ball during the first half at Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium.

Orlando City SC midfielder Kaka (10) and New England Revolution midfielder Scott Caldwell (6) battle for the ball during the first half at Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium.

USA TODAY Sports/Reuters/Kim Klement

You know how it usually goes is: A team owner sweet talks the public into putting up millions of dollars for a new stadium.

In return, we get to watch our favorite athletes do their thing — for a hefty price.

But people, and city councils, are souring on the idea of publicly-financed stadiums. Enter the owner of Orlando City. It's one of the newest teams to join Major League Soccer.

And it's owner, Flávio Augusto da Silva, came up with a clever way to raise the cash: foreign investment. It involves a little-known, but controversial, program called the "EB-5."

Foreign investors pony up $500,000 and, in return, they get a share of their investment — in this case a soccer stadium — and a green card. It has had mixed results elsewhere.

"To my knowledge, it's one of the first times the EB-5 program has been used to finance sports," says New York Times reporter Ken Belson.

Belson says Orlando City FC reached out to the city, county and state to get help building its stadium. He says the city and county came up with their share but the state refused. "So the clock was ticking, they had to open their new stadium by 2017," Belson says. "They were in a bit of a bind and they struck on this idea as the best way to get some financing."

People object to such investment incentives involving green cards, calling it unfair. "It's a common refrain," he says. "We're allowing people to cut in line because they have money and that seems very undemocratic."

The program is fairly common across the globe. Each country has its own version of investment for immigration. Belson says the US program has been around for about 25 years. And it could be a way forward for team owners who don’t want to spend their own money on a stadium. “In this case, [the stadium] is essentially 100 percent private,” says Belson. “So I guess, in many ways the local politicians are very happy about it because it's less a burden on their local taxpayers.”

But don’t think every team is lining up to get foreign investment. The EB-5 program has plenty of hoops to jump through. The FBI needs to make certain the cash isn’t being laundered, and each person must go through a major review before being granted green card. It’s a lot of work, and in some places, such as Vermont, an EB-5 project failed miserably and had little oversight.

And yet, it's working so far for Orlando City. Belson says the owners already put up a lot of the money.

“And the money from the visa candidates is a way to backfill the financing.”