The owners of the Ragged Mountain Resort are looking to sign up deep-pocketed Chinese and other foreign investors to finance a $35 million expansion at the Danbury ski area and golf course.
And they're offering more than potential future returns. Using a federal program intended to attract "immigrant investors," the resort can offer green cards to foreign nationals who invest at least $500,000 so they and their families can relocate to the United States.
"It's attracting foreign investment. But more importantly, it's allowing these companies to do job creation - which, in our economy, is a prevalent issue," said David Strong, chief operating officer of Utah-based developer Pacific Group.
Ragged Mountain was purchased in 2007 by a Pacific Group affiliate. The company has made improvements to the resort since then, and has worked with town officials on a long-term expansion plan.
The first phase, with a total price tag of $35 million, calls for replacing the lodge and adding a 40-unit hotel, condos, a spa and other facilities. Some $24.4 million is earmarked to add a new ski lift, install a mountain coaster, create a mountain-bike course, improve the golf course and make other upgrades.
But the plans have been on hold due to the economy. Strong said banks have "tightened their level of wanting to lend" in recent years.
Since last year, the resort's owners have worked with the state and federal governments to have the resort designated as an eligible project for what's known as the EB-5 visa program. The program was created in 1990 "to stimulate the U.S. economy through job creation and capital investment by foreign investors," according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.
Gov. John Lynch and George Bald, commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development, both sent letters to federal officials supporting the designation for Ragged Mountain and its surrounding towns.
"In a market like this, where it's difficult to get capital, it's a great alternative," said Michael Bergeron, business development manager at the department. "And a lot of these projects are in areas around the U.S. that are rural, they have high unemployment . . . so it's a great way to bring capital and create jobs in places that really need help."
Under the EB-5 program, foreign nationals must invest at least $1 million - or $500,000 for projects in rural areas like Danbury - in a designated project, creating at least 10 full-time jobs in the area. In return, the investors, their spouses and unmarried children under 21 can get green cards allowing legal residency in the United States.
In 2010, 1,885 visas were granted under the program, down from 4,218 visas in 2009 but up from 1,443 visas in 2008, according to the department.
Any investors in Ragged Mountain won't be required to live in New Hampshire; the green cards don't restrict where they reside. The application process includes background checks, Strong said.
"This is ideal for the EB-5 program," he said of Ragged Mountain. "The nature of the real estate, the nature of the resort, the overall asset as a whole is very appealing for foreign investors."
The federal government approved the designation last month. Pacific Group has created the New Hampshire EB-5 Regional Center to run and promote the program, with Strong as its president.
The center's website, newhampshireregionalcenter.com, comes in two languages: English and Chinese. Strong said Chinese investors are the project's main target, though there has been interest in EB-5 investments in England, India, Russia and South Korea as well.
"In the Chinese markets, they enjoy real estate. And specifically, if we look at the United States, they see it as a great investment opportunity because of the distressed real estate markets," Strong said.
A trip to Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities for company and resort officials to meet with potential investors is planned next month, he said. The company's "conservative estimate" is to raise the entire $35 million within 16 months, he said.
Bergeron said Ragged Mountain is the first New Hampshire project to participate in the EB-5 program, though two others, one in Plymouth and another in southern New Hampshire, are in the process of seeking approval.
The resort's owners have spent years working with Danbury's planning board on a long-term framework covering development on the mountain, though individual phases have to come back to the board for final approval, said Bernie Golden, chairman of the town's board of selectmen.
Golden said the town has been careful to make sure there isn't "uncontrolled growth" on the mountain that could stress infrastructure and services in the town of 1,164 as of last year's U.S. Census. He said the plan is to eventually build 800 units, mainly second homes, on the mountain.
"Generally speaking, the town is supportive of Ragged's efforts," Golden said. "They're the largest employer in town and they're the largest taxpayer in town, and we see this as a financial plus for the town when and if they move forward with their plans."