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High hopes for Hispanic gathering

The Tampa Bay Hispanic Chamber of Commerce kicks off an effort to organize businesses and establish a chapter in Pinellas.

Published September 25, 2005

CLEARWATER - They met in the lobby of a Mercedes-Benz dealership.

Brenda Alvarado surveyed the crowd of mostly Hispanic business people mingling at the first event held by the Tampa Bay Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Pinellas County.

"I see a lot of professionals," said Alvarado, 39, a chamber member who publishes a Spanish-language magazine and runs a computer learning center on Drew Street in Clearwater. "I don't see the grocery stores. I don't see them yet, but we have to think this is the first meeting."

Alvarado was referring to the mom-and-pop stores, restaurants and other businesses often displaying the colors of the Mexican flag that have appeared in Clearwater as the Hispanic population has grown on this side of the bay.

The mixer was attended by a few dozen business people who displayed the full diversity of the Hispanic population in Tampa Bay: Bolivian, Cuban, Honduran, Mexican, Argentinian and others.

It was the kickoff to the Tampa-based chamber's effort to organize Hispanic businesses of all types in Pinellas County and eventually establish an independent chapter there.

The presence of chamber members who were white or represented mainstream businesses illustrated the chamber's other goal: to increase its membership with any business interested in reaching the Hispanic market in the bay area.

Its effort will initially include membership lunches at Columbia Restaurant on the Pier in St. Petersburg every other month, with the first scheduled for Oct. 4. The chamber also plans to organize monthly coffee meetings at Pinellas businesses that join the organization.

Some at the event hoped the chamber's effort would also build social ties between the Hispanic communities in Tampa and Pinellas.

"I've been here my whole life and it's been seclusion. Hispanics over here. Hispanics over there. They don't cross the bridge," said Teresa Gispert de La Torre, a Cuban-American who operates Oye Hispanic Marketing firm in Tampa. "It's nice to see more interaction."

The chamber's push into Pinellas comes at a time of growth for the organization.

In about a year it has increased its membership from fewer than 150 businesses to more than 450. It did that in part by aggressively recruiting nonprofit organizations and, consequently, their boards of directors, who tend to be business people, said chamber president Jackie Rojas-Quinones.

For its success, the Tampa chamber was recently named the medium-size "Hispanic Chamber of the Year" by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in a region that ranges from Tennessee to Puerto Rico.

Although it has 70 members in Pinellas, the activities of the Tampa chapter had been centered east of the bay.

"Bridging the bay is something very new to us," said Mark Peredo, the chamber's 36-year-old president-elect, who operates Viacorp, a Hispanic marketing business in Tampa.

One chamber member who found it difficult to make the trip across the bridge was Gisela Busco, who works for a law firm in St. Petersburg.

Busco, a lawyer in Argentina who came to Florida in 1992, saw the potential for the chamber to expand in Pinellas after seeing the number of businesses here increase. "I work for an immigration firm, and I can see how they start with small businesses or working for companies," said Busco.

There are no official statistics on the number of businesses in Pinellas County owned by Hispanics, who made up less than 5 percent of the county's population in the 2000 U.S. Census.

But those in the Hispanic community say they have noticed, for instance, that the Colombian population has grown in Pinellas Park and Mexicans have increased in Clearwater.

Their businesses, such as the Mexico Lindo stores owned by Jesse Carrillo in Clearwater, are highly visible.

"The last five years (the number of businesses) has grown a lot," said Alvarado, who is originally from Honduras and lived in Los Angeles before she came to Clearwater eight years ago. She publishes Mi Barrio Latino magazine with husband Neptali Velazquez.

The Tampa chamber is not the first to notice the increasing number of Hispanic businesses.

Three years ago, Pinellas County Economic Development, in partnership with the Tampa-based nonprofit Hispanic Business Initiative Fund, began regular workshops in Clearwater to show Hispanics how to start and run businesses.

A Clearwater nonprofit group, UNO Federation Community Services, performed an assessment study two years ago and found out that Hispanics want more information on operating businesses.

UNO had scheduled a business expo at St. Petersburg College's Clearwater campus next month but has canceled because of lack of funding.

The county workshops "started as a result of the business-assistance specialist going out into the community and finding out we had a large number of Hispanic businesses out there who needed technical assistance," said Cynthia Johnson, of Pinellas County Economic Development.

The Tampa chamber's effort in Pinellas aims not only to nurture the smaller ethnic businesses that cater mainly to immigrants.

It also aims to recruit bigger Hispanic businesses such as law offices and real estate agencies. And one of its functions is to connect its non-Hispanic members with the Hispanic market.

For instance, Lokey, the Mercedes-Benz dealership where the event was held, is not owned by a Hispanic. But as part of a presentation to the chamber's members Thursday, an employee there told them, "Se habla Espanol" - we speak Spanish.

"We want people to see we have education, too," said Busco, who got an MBA from the University of Miami after arriving from Argentina.

[Last modified September 25, 2005, 02:15:40]

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