Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
Or perhaps the better question is, can they?
A group of Chinese investors reportedly wants to build a 400-unit upscale housing development in rural Michigan designed specifically for Chinese immigrants.
The plan is being floated in the southeastern corner of the state, where a company called Sino Michigan Properties has purchased 300 acres of land in the rural townships of Milan and London, which border the city of Milan, population 6,000. The property is about 20 miles from Ann Arbor, and its proximity to the University of Michigan is evidently part of the draw, according to The Detroit News:
While details of the project remain under wraps, three investors from the firm have met with Milan city officials to discuss extending public water and sewer lines into the townships. They also have shared a blueprint and pictures of a miniature scale version of the community, complete with Chinese and American flags flying at the entrance along Darling Road.
"Chinese developers want to build some kind of high-end residential houses," said Milan Mayor Kym Muckler.
The investors also have met with the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the state's public-private marketing group and incentive agency, to discuss the project. The company is not seeking local or state tax subsidies, the MEDC said.
The MEDC said the project is being tailored to Chinese families looking to qualify for in-state tuition at U-M.
News of the proposed project has riled up a lot of suspicious and sometimes frankly racist commentary, sparking headlines like "Communist Takeover?" "ChiComs Set to Colonize in Michigan,” and "Michigan Going Red…Not in a Good Way."
But for Phil Heath, supervisor of the township of Milan, the issue isn’t the race or political persuasion of the developers. It’s the lack of openness, which has spurred speculation and rumors about what would apparently be a self-contained and insular housing development.
Heath says no one in township government has had any direct communication with the investment group. "I honestly have had zero contact or official information from anyone," he says. "No requests for permits. No, 'We’d like to have a meeting and tell you what is going on.'"
Heath isn’t the only one who’s unclear about what’s happening with the project. According to an article in Crain’s Detroit Business, the investors may not have done their homework terribly well. Their report quotes Tongqing “Joe” Zhou, a retired Michigan businessman and liaison for Sino Michigan:
Zhou said the group has ... discovered that the project wouldn't satisfy job-creation requirements of the U.S. government's Immigrant Investor Program, also known as EB-5.
The program is a way for foreign investors to obtain a green card and become conditional permanent residents of the U.S. Under the program, foreigners are required to invest a minimum of $1 million in an enterprise that creates or preserves at least 10 full-time jobs, or $500,000 if the enterprise is rural or in an area of low employment.
Under Sino Michigan Properties' plan, homebuyers would also have been investors in the project, and each housing unit would have needed to produce 10 permanent jobs in order to meet EB-5 requirements and ensure that the homeowners could continue to live in the U.S., Zhou said.
With 400 homeowner-investors, that would mean they’d have to create 4,000 jobs.
(A lawyer acting as an agent for the project has not returned a request for comment. Nor has the mayor of the city of Milan.)
Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, has made a big push to increase Chinese investment in his state and to bolster trade ties with China, traveling there last September on a trade mission to help drum up business and meeting with Xi Jinping, the country’s vice president and likely next leader, in February. According to the Rhodium Group, which tracks Chinese investment in the United States, China has invested $619 million in Michigan since 2003, and Snyder, in his efforts to revive a devastated economy, is clearly determined to grow that number. (Governor Snyder's office has yet to respond to a request for comment.)
Milan Township’s Heath, a small businessman himself, says he’s skeptical of the governor’s focus on wooing big business and foreign dollars. He's concerned the project could get pushed through without regard to local concerns and regulations. Snyder has shown he's committed to using executive power to address economic problems.
"The way the governor is doing things, the rules do not apply," says Heath. "His attitude is, 'This is what’s good, this is what has to be done, it’s going to happen.' He hides behind economic development and does what he wants. He’s such a promoter for big business and growth, it scares me."