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Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (GA)
City Helps Hispanics Columbus Fosters Business Growth In Fast-Growing Community
BY TONY ADAMS
June 21, 2003
Jose Ricci knows a thing or two about venturing out on a limb to follow his dream of owning a business.
It was nearly a year ago that the certified executive chef opened a restaurant called Ritmo Latino on Victory Drive. Then three months ago, he launched a Spanish-language radio station at 1270-AM. It has quickly grown from four hours of programming to 60 hours of talk shows and music on the weekends.
Now Ricci is 10 days away from the inaugural July 1 edition of his monthly tabloid newspaper La Voz Hispana. The title translates to "the Hispanic voice," and that's exactly what the Puerto Rico native hopes to achieve: Getting the word out about the local Latin community.
"To tell you the truth, the restaurant was to have a place like a community building where people can go and ask questions and get answers," said Ricci, 36. "The radio station has grown because there's a demand for it. But we wanted to find another way of communication. That's why the idea of a bilingual newspaper... We want to bring both communities together. There's no reason why they need to be separate, not because of the language barrier."
Ricci's effort could be termed entrepreneurism in a nutshell: Find a need, develop a product or service, and fulfill your customer's expectations.
There are a couple of agencies in town that see an opportunity to foster the development of Hispanic-owned businesses. The Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce and the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center have begun focusing programs on the fastest-growing ethnicity in Columbus.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Muscogee County's Hispanic population is 8,372, up 58 percent from the 5,294 reported in 1990. The total buying power of local Latinos is expected to top $162 million this year, according to UGA's Selig Center for Economic Growth.
Mixed into the demographics are more than 200 Hispanic-owned businesses in Columbus, according to the 1997 U.S. Economic Census. The chamber took a hard look at that number in early 2002 and created a Hispanic Business Outreach program.
"The goal was to increase the number of Hispanic-owned business members of the chamber and engage them in the existing programs. We've got a whole lot of stuff already for small businesses," said Ron Hinze, senior vice president for small business development at the chamber. "We determined that these programs would need to be tweaked in some ways.For example, the Spanish language obstacle would have to be considered in anything that we did with Hispanic-owned businesses."
Thus, documents used by the chamber's Business One Stop Shop were translated into Spanish. The organization also is working on a database to identify specifically who owns local Hispanic companies, their markets and where they do business.
So far, the chamber has identified about 80 Hispanic-owned businesses and is attempting to reach out to them. A large number of them, but not all, have turned south Columbus into a cultural melting pot.
One message the chamber will attempt to deliver is that, ultimately, the Hispanic entrepreneurs will have to enter mainstream markets to truly succeed.
"In Columbus, if you're a Hispanic-owned business and you're just going to do business with other Hispanics, it's only a matter of time before you're no longer going to be able to grow, because the market is just not there," Hinze said.
To help Latin entrepreneurs start in their own businesses, UGA's Small Business Development Center has scheduled a free seminar Sept. 4 at Ricci's restaurant on Victory Drive. Topics will include creating a business plan and learning the legal structure of setting up a company, such as insurance and tax requirements.
The kicker: It will be taught completely in Spanish. That's where the trust factor enters the picture, said Eduardo Lopez, the Mexico native and UGA minority business consultant who will be teaching the class.
"We haven't been so successful in marketing these services to the Hispanic community, because in order for them to trust you they need to really know you," Lopez said. "And that's a hard, hard task to do. They know I'm from Mexico and they trust me."
Lopez held a similar seminar in Athens, Ga., recently. It initially drew about 20 participants, but a flurry of late-registrations pushed that number to 35. A large number of those attending were Mexican immigrants and didn't speak English, but they had an idea for starting a restaurant, grocery store or check-cashing business at which money could be sent home to relatives.
Therein, however, lies a misnomer, Hinze said. The local Hispanic business community isn't only home to Mexican restaurants and general stores.
"We have some very successful professionals living here," he said. "There are lawyers, doctors, businessmen and women."
The cultural influence is only expected to grow, Lopez said.
"Georgia is considered, according to the census, a new Latino destination," he said. "That's why we have had such explosive growth during the last 10 years."
BY THE NUMBERS
The University of Georgia Small Business Development Center frequently holds free seminars on starting a business. The Spanish-language version will be held 5-7 p.m. Sept. 4 at Ritmo Latino Restaurant, 3665 Victory Drive in Columbus. To register, contact the center at (706) 649-7433.
The Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce has its own Hispanic Business Outreach program. Contact Ron Hinze at 327-1566.