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Business partners hope to import jobs, investments into Elkhart County

A Chicago-based businessman and his Elkhart County-based partner hope to create jobs and spur economic development here via international investment, most notably from China.
Posted on Dec. 16, 2010 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Dec. 16, 2010 at 12:39 p.m.

A Chicago-based businessman and his Elkhart County-based partner hope to create jobs and spur economic development here via international investment, most notably from China.

Christopher Graff, who's originally from Elkhart County but now based out of Chicago, estimates the initiative has a 60 percent to 70 percent probability of yielding positive results -- foreign investment dollars. He and his local partner, Aaron Zou, hope to tap a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services program that encourages international investment by granting legal U.S. residency to the qualifying foreign participants.

"We both felt compelled to do something to give back to the community," Graff said.

Of course, his and Zou's newly formed venture, Indiana Gateway Fund, is a for-profit operation.

Similarly, the deep-pocketed investors they hope to lure to Elkhart County would be looking for a return on their investment, not to mention U.S. residency.

Still, one Elkhart County backer, County Commissioner Mike Yoder, sees the initiative as another means of bringing jobs, capital and new industry to the hard-hit zone.

The USCIS' EB-5 visa program has lured millions of dollars in investment to the East Coast, the West Coast and even the Dakotas, he said.

Some may have "philisophical issues" with the notion of granting U.S. residency to foreigners in return for investing here, a minimum of $500,000, according to program guidelines, Yoder says. But it's a long-standing program that has drawn plenty of foreign investment income to the United States.

"There is money, foreign investment money, that's looking for a home in the United States," Yoder said.

Though a private venture, county commissioners on Monday agreed to provide IGF with $10,000.

The funds are to help defray the firm's costs as it wrangles with the USCIS to get the requisite designation extending the reach of the EB-5 program from Chicago to Elkhart County.

The push for EB-5 status here stands a solid chance of success, Graff said, and he hopes for a formal answer from the feds in January. Eight other adjoining counties, both in Indiana and Michigan, would also be included in the new EB-5 zone, though Elkhart County is the chief focus of the initiative.

FOCUSING ON CHINA

Assuming a green light from the feds, the initial push would be for investment income from China, specifically the Jinhua area of Zhejiang province in the eastern part of the country. Commissioner Terry Rodino traveled with Zou to the zone earlier this year to investigate investment opportunities, according to Graff, and Zou, a Chinese-American, has strong ties there. Secondarily, the businessmen would potentially seek out investors from the Middle East and Europe, Graff said.

Graff already has five leads he's pursuing, though he wouldn't provide particulars. Whatever the case, the individual projects he envisions would necessitate plenty of backing, perhaps $5 million to $10 million each from as many as 10 to 20 individual investors.

According to terms of the EB-5 program, each $500,000 investment would have to generate 10 new jobs. Alternatively, the funds -- which must come from legitimate sources -- could be invested in a "distressed" firm to help save existing jobs.


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