White sandy beaches, trendy shops and restaurants, spectacular mansions -- welcome to sunny Naples, Florida -- where the wealthy live and play on the Gulf of Mexico coast.
Once a sleepy seaside town, Naples is now booming and a home to many millionaires and billionaires -- including the family of Anthony Korda. "I grew up in London. I'm pretty much London born and bred," Korda said. Korda, his wife of 18 years and their two kids became U.S. citizens this year. They used their bank account to make it happen. "We wanted the American lifestyle, we wanted the American dream," he said.
The British lawyer says in 2007 he was the first EB-5 investor in Jay Peak's $275-million expansion, trading a $500,000 investment in the Vermont ski resort for green cards for him and his family.
Reporter Gina Bullard: Did you ever think it was too good to be true?
Anthony Korda: Oh absolutely. The whole thing sounded too good to be true -- it sounded fanciful.
But Korda researched the federal program and found that for his investment his family would get green cards for two years and be put on a fast track for permanent residency and ultimately citizenship. In exchange, his investment had to create 10 jobs in Vermont.
From the sand to the slopes -- over 1,600 miles away -- Korda's American Dream was made possible in large part by Jay Peak President Bill Stenger.
Korda is one of 550 investors from 60 countries who combined put up $275-million for the first wave of expansion at Jay Peak. "I would not have invested in Jay Peak if I wasn't going to get a green card out of it. I was willing to trade my $500,000 with very little return on my investment in return for immigration benefits -- that's the payment, that's the quid pro quo," Korda said.
The money built a hotel, shops, an ice hockey arena and an indoor water park. Now Stenger is looking for 1,000 more deep pocketed foreign investors. His goal -- raise $500-million to create the largest project Vermont has ever seen. It includes overhauling Newport -- building two hotels, a conference center and rebuilding main street, plus developing Burke Mountain with new condos and a hotel. If the plan succeeds it would also be one of the biggest EB-5 projects in the country, with developers promising to generate more than 10,000 jobs.
Korda visited Vermont in October. He was checking on his own investment, but also others. He was inspired to help people become citizens using the same path he did. He now practices immigration law in Naples, working with EB-5 investors from all over the world. "In the last five years I've represented at least 250 EB-5 investors," he said.
He has two offices in Florida, one in California and one in London. Korda was raised middle class and worked hard as a lawyer to become a millionaire. He and his family now live in a 4,000 square foot home in Naples. Korda says in this ritzy town being a millionaire is considered middle class. He says he was able to afford the $500,000 EB-5 investment because of a family inheritance. Korda knows some people don't like the program, arguing it's a way for wealthy people to buy the American Dream. But Korda says the U-S was built on immigration - and his investment is helping a region that needs his cash.
Reporter Gina Bullard: One of the big criticisms is that people say you get to go to the front of the green card line.
Anthony Korda: That's not true -- these are visas set aside for this purpose.
Every year 10,000 immigrants are allowed into the U.S. with the EB-5 program. They come to places like sunny Florida but they invest all over the nation, including Vermont.
"I tell my clients three things -- one, will your green card be approved? Two, will it be made permanent? Three, will you get your money back? The third is less important than the first two, Korda said.
Under the EB-5 program there is no guarantee for investors. Officials say these are risky projects that might not succeed, which is why developers don't go through banks and other traditional financing routes.
Reporter Gina Bullard: Do you expect to get your investment back -- your half million dollars?
Anthony Korda: I would like it back, certainly."
Korda is talking to Stenger about getting his investment back through a payment plan. But even if he doesn't recover the cash, Korda says he's already gotten a big payback. "You're investing in this country and in turn this country will invest in you by allowing you to come here, bring your family here, work if you want to and enjoy life as an American," he said.
Korda is just one example of hundreds of investors that are changing the face of the Northeast Kingdom. The vetting process for the immigrants is not simple. Investors can not have a criminal background and the investment money also has to be clean. The government wants to make sure it's bringing in only upstanding people into the country.