Will a cleaned-up El Monte draw more investment?

A poster for a hotel under construction on Valley Boulevard in El Monte, financed using EB-5 foreign investor funds. The city hopes to attract more investment.
A poster for a hotel under construction on Valley Boulevard in El Monte, financed using EB-5 foreign investor funds. The city hopes to attract more investment.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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A citation for illegal dumping in El Monte used to cost $50. Not any more. Earlier this week, city leaders voted to raise the fine to $200. Second-time offenders will find themselves paying $500.

City officials say there’s more to it than just making money off tickets. This working-class city hopes to lure more of the foreign investment that’s revitalizing other parts of the San Gabriel Valley, much of it from China.

"If your streets are not clean, why would I want to invest millions of dollars to bring in stores, industry, business into that community, or that city?" said Juventino "J" Gomez, a city council member who wants for the city to attract more development.

To that same end, the city recently squashed an attempt by Los Angeles County officials to open a regional probation office in El Monte. County officials said they've dropped the plan, at least for now. 

Unlike some of its wealthier San Gabriel Valley neighbors, this majority-Latino city of 117,000 has struggled with unemployment and poverty. Census data puts the median household income  $39,535; it's estimated that almost 25 percent of its population is below the poverty level.

But in recent years, the city has drawn interest from foreign investors. Under an immigrant visa program known as EB-5, foreigners who invest a minimum of $500,000 in a U.S. business can obtain legal resident status and an eventual path to citizenship. Investors can put down the minimum amount of money if they choose an area in the U.S. where jobs are scarce, referred to as a "Targeted Employment Area" or TEA. Unlike tonier parts of the San Gabriel Valley, El Monte qualifies as a TEA.

One big project that's going up in the city now is a new Hilton Garden Inn on Valley Boulevard.  The construction site prominently displays a banner in Mandarin that advertises the investment program "EB-5."

It hasn't all been smooth going though. A few years ago, the city was working with a developer that was using foreign investment funds to develop a retail and housing project. It went belly-up after the developers were arrested on suspicion of fraud. They weren't prosecuted. But when the city pulled out of the deal, the developer sued, costing the city millions.

Dave Gondek, an attorney for El Monte, recently told KPCC that despite that bad experience, the city was still interested in foreign investment.

"Everyone is interested in capital, and capital is scarce," Gondek said. "Certainly in an underserved community like ours, where traditional financial institutions aren't making loans."

Gomez said the hotel developer has also bought property on the other side of Valley Boulevard, to develop that parcel as well.