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Growing Hispanic population an attractive business market

Mississippi`s increasingly diverse makeup includes a fast-growing Hispanic population.

Statistics from the 2000 Census show the Magnolia State`s Hispanic population rising to 39,569, representing an increase of 60% since 1980. While Hispanic workers have been changing some of the ways Mississippi does business for a while, a growing class of Hispanic entrepreneurs is making its presence felt throughout the state as well.

Groups such as the Mississippi Hispanic Association and the Central Mississippi Hispanic Business Alliance are networking to aid the Hispanic business community, while Mississippi Development Authority programs and Hispanic-language media give Hispanic entrepreneurs a new way to communicate with potential customers.

Large numbers of Mississippians identifying themselves as Hispanics were tabulated in Mississippi`s urban counties, with Harrison County reporting the largest population (4,910), followed by Jackson County (2,807), DeSoto County (2,516) and Hinds County (1,978), Other Central Mississippi counties had larger numbers as well, starting with Scott County (1,660), followed by Rankin (1,520) and Yazoo County (1,233).

Many Hispanic business owners made the leap to self-employment after working in the United States for several years. Jose Moran, owner of M&B Concessions, said that he worked in the concessions business for 11 years for another firm before going into business for himself. “The company I was working for went bankrupt. I had a little money I could put into it, and I bought all of his equipment and went on my own,” said Moran, who emigrated from El Salvador in 1976 to attend school at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Finishing his degree in 1980, he learned the business well and now provides full concession services as well as concession equipment sales, rental and repair to clients ranging from the Mississippi Memorial Stadium and the Mississippi Coliseum to independent movie theatres across Central Mississippi to snackers who drop by his downtown Jackson location. “We have a tremendous walk-in business,” said Moran, who has two full-time employees and various levels of part-time help in the summer.

He`s watched the Hispanic population grow exponentially in his time in Mississippi, particularly in the past five years. “When I started in this business, there were no Hispanics in Mississippi,” said Moran. “Now you go to Scott County and you see thousands.”

Linda Shepherd, director of Leake County Economic Development, said that their service area has seen an influx of Hispanics, with several businesses joining the local Chamber of Commerce, including restaurants and specialty shops. Shepherd said she did not know of any particular programs to recruit Hispanic business owners to business organizations.

“I know in our strategic planning, we have addressed the need in workforce training to consider the importance of communication with our Hispanic community,” said Shepherd.

Brian Goff, executive director of Hernando Main Street in DeSoto County, said that his organization knew of several prospective members from the Hispanic business community that were considering joining his organization. Most of the Hispanic entrepreneurs are building contractors or subcontractors.

“A large number of entrepreneurs in our area are capitalizing on the construction trade and food services,” said Goff.

Other business groups have been formed that cater particularly to the Hispanic population. Beverly Rosales, board member of the Mississippi Hispanic Association (MHA), said the eight-year-old organization has members from across the state, with over 20 countries in Central and Latin America represented. Many of the members are business professionals, such as engineers or educators.

According to Rosales, the MHA is often called upon to aid businesses seeking to tap into the Hispanic market. “We’re basically a social and cultural organization – but we do network with other organizations,” says Rosales.

Rosemary Barbour, owner of Quik Internet of Mississippi in Jackson, also serves as president of the Central Mississippi Hispanic Business Alliance. “The mission is to serve as a sounding board for Hispanic-owned businesses as well as a vehicle for governmental and private agencies to reach out to the Hispanic business community,” says Barbour.

Many Hispanic-owned retailers focus on serving the Hispanic community, while most service firms work with all types of clients, Barbour says. Gerado Lopez, who owns the Loco Chicken in Richland, said that his business plan includes appeals to all types of customers through advertising on mainstream radio stations. “Our community is growing, but we have to appeal to the whole community,” said Lopez, who said he relocated his restaurant from Forest to Richland to take advantage of the high traffic counts on U.S. 49.

Many of the state`s 1,000 Hispanic-owned firms are aggressively seeking partnerships with other businesses by participating in the Minority Business Enterprise Program (MBEP) at the Mississippi Development Authority, according to Barbour.

Carol Harris, interim director of the MBEP, said that Hispanic-owned firms can place their businesses in the Certified Minority Business database. The certification program ensures that the companies listed meet the Small Business Administration criteria for a minority contractor of 51% minority ownership with the net worth of all owners being under $250,000. According to Harris, Hispanic and other minority-owned businesses that meet the certification requirements can access low-interest business loans and be recommended for various government and private sector contracts.

Moran only recently registered to be included in the database, due to his work with state-owned entities. “It was nothing I pursued because I was already doing business with all of those people,” said Moran.

The MBEP also has a senior projects manager working actively in Hispanic business development, who also coordinates quarterly meetings for Hispanic businesses on topics of interest, such as the upcoming food service regulations program from the Department of Health, said Morris.

Media services are also coming into their own to appeal to the Hispanic community. When Luis Espinoza started his Spanish language newspaper La Noticia in Ridgeland in 2001, he had four advertisers in a 12-page tabloid he published weekly. His page count has climbed to 16, with 48 pick-up sites as far north as Koscuisko, as far west as Vicksburg and as far east as Meridian. His paper remains the only Spanish-language publication located in the state, with articles on cultural events, immigration issues, politics and sports.

His advertisers include restaurants, interpreters, law firms, doctors and retailers. With Espinoza and his partners moving about 3,500 copies a week, he has about 15 businesses who advertise with him regularly – some Hispanic-owned, some not, Espinoza said. “We started off with who we know,” said Espinoza.

Another media outlet reaching out to Hispanic consumers is WVIM-FM 95.3 in Hernando, a gospel station that began airing Spanish-language broadcasting regularly after October 2001, with live announcers from 8-12 p.m. and pre-programmed broadcasts from midnight to 6 a.m. Mary Lane, general manager at Tate and DeSoto County Broadcasting Inc, said that the broadcasts currently drew about 15 sponsors, all of them Hispanic businesses.

Although that figure is lower than before due to the uncertain economy, it still makes the service a worthwhile one, Lane noted. “If it were not supported by advertisers, we would not broadcast it,” said Lane.

The station`s proximity to one of the South`s major urban areas most likely helps the programming survive, said Goff. “They’re close enough to Memphis that their signal carries to the area,” said Goff.

Espinoza cited the main barrier to Hispanic entrepreneurs as being low access to capital coupled with language barriers in dealing with financial and government institutions. “Maybe they have the idea but they don`t have the money to start,” Espino
za sai
d. Moran noted that most of the Hispanic business owners he knows are in high-skilled professions with a strong educational background. “It`s very rare that you`ll see one go to that from the unskilled labor,” said Moran.

But Lopez noted that most of the same rules apply for Hispanic businesses to succeed in Mississippi as they do to any other type of business: “If you go by the rules and do what you have to do, you won`t have any problems,” said Lopez.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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