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Puerto Rican Chamber Expects To Expand
Hispanics have built diversified businesses with a growing population in Central Florida.
By GARY TAYLOR
March 9, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.
The small but ambitious Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida is positioning itself for the future.
There's good reason, says Michael Rodriguez, who has been active in the organization since it formed five years ago.
Central Florida's Hispanic population is mushrooming, and more than half of the area's Hispanics have their roots in Puerto Rico, he said.
Rodriguez expects that by 2020, there will be 1 million Hispanics living in Central Florida, accounting for a quarter of the population.
The growth involves more than just numbers.
Rodriguez and chamber President Raul Ramos are quick to point out that the makeup of the Hispanic population is changing almost as fast as it's growing.
Hispanic lifestyles are no longer dominated by jobs in the service industry. There are growing numbers of Hispanic professionals, and Hispanics are moving into technology fields at a record pace. A perfect example of that is the University of Central Florida, where there are 3,000 Hispanic students, Rodriguez said.
"The Puerto Rican community has to take a leadership role in the Hispanic community," Ramos said. Puerto Ricans have a big advantage over Hispanics from other countries, he said. "We're already American citizens," he said. Many also are bilingual.
Central Florida's Puerto Rican community is drawing new residents from the island and from Puerto Rican communities in other parts of the United States.
Some are here because of the weather, others to join family members. Many also come to this area because they think it offers better job opportunities than other places.
As a result, small businesses are popping up everywhere. They range from small groceries that cater to Hispanics to businesses that serve residents from every part of the area's diverse population.
The Puerto Rican chamber wants to be in a position to help those small businesses.
At the same time, it is trying to attract large corporations. Chamber leaders say they can help those companies meet the needs of the growing Hispanic population and draw on the talents offered by Hispanics.
There is more than just business on the minds of chamber officials.
"We need to empower the Puerto Rican community politically as well as economically," Ramos said.
The chamber has about 170 members, but is adding five to six members a month, Ramos said. It is one of three Hispanic chambers in the area, and the three combined represent less than 15 percent of the area's Hispanic businesses, Rodriguez said.
They are determined to network with larger Hispanic chambers in Florida and throughout the country and to work hand in hand with other chambers in Central Florida.
To that end, the Puerto Rican chamber formed an alliance in 1999 with the Sanford-Seminole County Chamber of Commerce.
"Their members became our members and our members became their members," Rodriguez said. "We share newsletters and activities."
The alliance with the Sanford chamber was important because of Orlando Sanford International Airport. The airport not only offers flights between Central Florida and Puerto Rico, but it also offers job opportunities for Hispanics, Rodriguez said.
"It offers higher-paying jobs compared to the service industry and many of them require bilingual talent," he said.
The alliance with the long-established Sanford chamber has given credibility to the much younger Puerto Rican chamber, Ramos said.
There also have been discussions with chamber officials in Lake Mary, Winter Park and Orlando.