COEUR d'ALENE - Well-heeled Chinese entrepreneurs with a desire to become legal American residents are now seen as prospects to help bolster Idaho's economy.
The Idaho Department of Commerce said there are 20 such Chinese citizens who have expressed interest in coming to the U.S., investing $500,000 each and creating at least 10 new jobs for American workers under the federal EB-5 immigrant visa program that allows for issuance of a green card for permanent U.S. residency in exchange for that investment.
"The Coeur d'Alene area is well positioned," to reap potential benefits from the program, Robert Ketchum said. The principal in The Ketchum Group and former director of the North Idaho College Workforce Training Center in Post Falls said the education and business community has worked for years to develop relationships with the Chinese.
Dennis Wheeler, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp., proposed several years ago that the community create a business alliance similar to Jobs Plus to promote the region to the Chinese, Ketchum said.
"The potential for North Idaho is the beautiful location," Ketchum said. "In China 90 percent of the surface water is polluted, and there are challenges with air quality."
That could make Idaho an attractive site for investors looking for a better place to raise their families, he said.
"The Chinese will go where the relationships are," he said.
Wheeler was unavailable for comment on Monday.
The Idaho Statesman reported Sunday that the announcement by the state Commerce Department capped a successful week of meetings in China between Gov. Butch Otter, Chinese officials, investors and Idaho companies.
"It met and exceeded our expectations," said Don Dietrich, Commerce Department director.
The newspaper reported the Idaho State Regional Center and its Chinese partner Westlink hope to eventually have 120 investors and $60 million in investments.
"Our company believes that the Idaho State Regional Center is the best, most innovative EB-5 program for Chinese investors," Sun Lu of Westlink said in a news release.
Otter spoke at several seminars, and on Friday met with Chinese Vice Minister of Commerce Yi Xiao Jhun, who said the country is leery of investing after some businesses turned out to be fraudulent or involved with organized crime.
Steve Hill, an agent at Century 21 Beutler & Associates, said there are ample opportunities in the local market with a large inventory of vacant industrial sites with lease rates as low as 22 cents per square foot.
He plans on going on one of the China visits being coordinated by the Coeur d'Alene Chamber of Commerce this fall.
"I'm going to try to sit down with anyone who is interested," he said, though he is unsure of what the prospects might be. "Until I get over there, I won't know."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.