Casa Grande 'world trade center' complex set to open soon
by Caitlin McGlade and Lindsey Collom - Aug. 5, 2011 06:34 AM
The Arizona Republic
- A massive wholesale shopping complex is expected to open soon in Pinal County, bringing with it at least 300 foreign investors and their families looking to make a home in America.
To stay, they have to help boost the local economy.
Chinese investors, real-estate companies and local government officials have completed plans for a 1.5 million-square-foot business center, to be called Phoenix Mart.
The project's estimated cost is $150 million, and its developers' stated goal is to make it a "world trade center of sorts" by hosting 2,000 vendors, many from China.
The complex will be a one-stop shop for businesses seeking supplies or products to sell, according to the developer, Scottsdale-based AZ Sourcing LLC.
AZ Sourcing bought the land from a private owner in 2010.
Tenants on site will use storefronts to sell six categories of merchandise: consumer products for men, women and youths, automotive products, "home and hotel" products, and food.
A convention center at the mall will host regular trade shows so participating small businesses can share their products with national and international companies, said Adam Hood, a senior associate with commercial-real-estate brokerage Colliers International in Phoenix, which has been hired to identify and book tenants.
The general public also will be able to shop alongside business owners.
"It's kind of a new beginning for the city, county and the state of Arizona," said Casa Grande Mayor Robert Jackson at a news conference Wednesday.
AZ Sourcing also plans to add new businesses at nearby Tanger Outlet Mall in Casa Grande to complement the wholesaler lineup at Phoenix Mart.
One hotel-supply business is already set to move in by the end of the year, said Jeremy Schoenfelder, executive vice president of AZ Sourcing.
While AZ Sourcing and Colliers International are aiming to fill tenant slots with American companies, the project plan also calls for hundreds of immigrant investors with hefty pocketbooks. Those investors can obtain U.S. residency for themselves and their immediate families based on legislation passed in 1990.
The law, enabling what are known as EB-5 visas, allows immigrant investors to obtain green cards if they fulfill certain economic-development goals.
Generally, a foreign national must invest $1 million in a business endeavor to be a candidate, but the requirement is reduced to $500,000 in specially designated areas that have unemployment rates at least 1.5 times the national average.
The law states that each foreign investor must also create or save at least 10 full-time, local jobs.
If an EB-5 candidate does not fulfill those goals within two years, he or she does not earn permanent residency.
The program has grown in popularity over the past few years, with as many as 1,955 applications vying for a project during the 2010 fiscal year, compared with 776 three years before.
The U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services approved more than 1,360 applications in 2010.
Also that year, 768 investors applied to earn their permanent residency, but 56 of them failed to meet goals and were denied. About 270 were approved, and the rest are still pending, according to Department of Homeland Security records.
The EB-5 program has spurred an estimated minimum of 31,160 jobs and accumulated more than $1.5 billion in investments since it began in 1990, according to federal records.
Critics of EB-5 say the program allows people to "buy their way into the country" on the premise of creating jobs for Americans. But those employment opportunities often don't materialize, said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform.
"Very often, these are businesses that don't create jobs for anyone else except for someone who made the investment and their immediate family," Mehlman said.
"A lot of economically depressed areas are pretty desperate, and anybody who is willing to come in and invest anything, they get excited about it, even if (the benefit) isn't all that much."
The clock is already ticking for Phoenix Mart investors, so construction crews will aim to have the center up and running by the end of 2012. They will likely break ground late in first-quarter 2012.
If the Casa Grande project works, 3,000 job opportunities - that's 10 per investor - should open. These might include anything from sales-clerk to tech-support to administrative positions. Officials are estimating that another 4,000 or more direct or indirect jobs might crop up as well, including construction and maintenance positions to build the structure.
"These are people who are looking for a place to raise their families, invest in their future," said Elizabeth Mann, president of AZ Sourcing.
She said many of these families speak English, but the county and the city are preparing for a language-barrier problem to arise fairly soon.
The law does not limit the investors to living in Casa Grande, but officials are having discussions with high schools about initiating a Mandarin-speaking teacher and have also looked into having a Mandarin-speaking staffer in city government, said David Snider, a Pinal County supervisor.
The city offered no incentives to bring in Phoenix Mart. Officials chose Casa Grande because it met the unemployment-rate requirement, because of its location between Tucson and Phoenix and because of the convenience of the railway nearby the site, Schoenfelder said.
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