Welcome Mat

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2007

Florida needs more immigrants! When they talk about immigrants, most people think strawberry pickers, chicken butchers, carpenters, dishwashers, ditch diggers and housemaids. But Tony Macaluso thinks wealthy retirees. The Palm Beach Gardens realtor specializes in foreign homebuyers, and would like to see the United States of America provide a retirement, non-work resident card to age 55-plus, high-net-worth foreigners who buy homes in the United States.

Macaluso is concerned about countries such as Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama aggressively courting U.S. and Canadian retirees with tax breaks and permanent visas, just when home and condo inventories are piling up fast in Florida. Of equal concern is that the growing hassle of flying and the new fortress feel of the United States are pushing more and more wealthy Europeans to buy into retirement closer to home, in countries such as Spain or Bulgaria.

Under current investor green-card programs, wealthy individuals have to stand in line a dozen years until we let them stay permanently in the Land of the Free. “For someone who’s already in retirement age, that may be longer than they’re willing to wait,” Macaluso says.

The Palm Beach Gardens realtor isn’t hiding his selfish reasons: Fifteen percent of 2006 real estate sales in Florida were to foreigners. But now, he says, “we are short on purchasers, particularly those interested in upscale properties.” But, he adds, what’s good for realtors is good for the Florida economy.

Trying to cap off political criticism, he says there’s nothing controversial about his target clientele. “These would be our healthy, wealthy and wise,” he explains. “Plus, they’re no security threat. We haven’t seen many terrorists over 55.”

True enough. Problem is, we’re not Canada or Australia. Neither the public debate nor our immigration laws are particularly open to pragmatic reasoning. The only point all sides agree upon is that the U.S. immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed. But that fixing effort may be cut short by the fact that immigration is one of the hottest buttons ready to be pushed by candidates in the upcoming presidential elections.

Macaluso is also facing the challenge of finding representatives and senators willing to sponsor an amendment. His pool isn’t very large. To be precise, he may only find takers among the delegations from Florida and Arizona, the two main states that rely on retirees.

So—nice idea, but bye-bye Tony?

Don’t discard Macaluso’s law project too quickly. For one, he is working hard to get the full backing of the National Association of Realtors. And his idea got prominent play at a one-day workshop in Clearwater earlier this year. Hosted by the pro-business lobbying organization Florida TaxWatch, the event provided stateside businesses a forum to figure out what they would like to see in the way of federal immigration reform.

Before campaigning heats up, there is a roughly one-year window of opportunity to pass comprehensive immigration reform in Congress. Business, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, is eager to push through comprehensive immigration reform. And it seems they’re not averse to the idea of letting Macaluso tag on an amendment to a bigger immigration bill.

We’ll keep you posted.


A lot of full- or part-time residents in Southwest Florida play leading roles elsewhere in the world—but very often we don’t even know they’re here. With the intent of connecting our conscience a little more with the world, I’m starting a standing feature in this column in which I present foreign businesspeople who live in our area.

In that sense, all airport and tourism people here should take note of Steve Knackstedt. In January, the 47-year old former airline executive moved to Punta Gorda and brought with him CWS Consulting, an air transportation consulting business. Knackstedt recently quit his job as Germany chief of Continental Airlines after 28 years with the company, to go backpacking in Peru. And now he is consulting European airports on how to land long-haul carriers, from his Southwest Florida home-office.

Why should we care? He’s the kind of person who could help us justify the “International” in Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. It is consultants such as Knackstedt who brought European carriers to Southwest Florida in the 1990s—which, in turn, brought us hundreds of thousands of well-paying tourists and part-time residents.

When I last talked to Knackstedt about the Germany-Florida airline business, he expressed bias against SRQ. Our airport, he says, is “geographically challenged” by its proximity to the Tampa and Fort Myers airports.

However, with tens of thousands of German, Swiss, Austrian, Belgian and Dutch property owners between Naples and Tampa, but only one weekly nonstop flight to Central Europe from Fort Myers and none from Tampa, there should be some transatlantic space for SRQ.

What’s more, we may see a boost in transatlantic routes soon. That’s because U.S. and European negotiators earlier this year reached a breakthrough, after four years of talks about deregulating air traffic. Current bilateral regulations restrict the number of airlines and destinations. In London-Heathrow, for instance, only four airlines are permitted to fly Europe-United States routes. An Open Skies deal between the entire European Union and the U.S. would free up transatlantic routes from any city in Europe to any city in the United States.

So go ahead and talk Knackstedt out of his bias. It’s worth a try.

Johannes Werner is a Sarasota-based business journalist who has worked in Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean and the United States. He is the editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News and hosts the Florida-Caribe radio show on WSLR 96.5 FM.

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