Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hispanic eco devo group expands its services to Johnson County

Posted By on Tue, Jun 30, 2009 at 7:00 AM

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A couple of weeks ago, I went to a presentation from Rob Paral, a researcher who suggests Mexican immigrants are coming to the Midwest is such large numbers that shunning or criminalizing workers from the other side of the southern border is both unrealistic and self-defeating.

In his definition of "Midwest," Paral didn't include Kansas. But Johnson County is very much part of this picture.

Bernardo Ramirez, executive director of Kansas City's Hispanic Economic Development Corporation, was at Paral's presentation, too. He says the rising number of immigrants on the Kansas side of the metro is dramatic. In fact, it's so significant that HEDC recently opened an office in Overland Park to serve the growing crop of Hispanic entrepreneurs.

The Pew Hispanic Center reports that, between 2000 and 2007, the Latino population surged 70 percent in Johnson County. In some pockets that increase nudged into triple digits. "Even Hispanic folks who know about that growth, who see more Latinos, when you give them the numbers it's like, "Wow,'" Ramirez says.

In the past two years, HEDC has seen a spike in Hispanic-oriented businesses in the 'burbs. Since early 2007, the group has assisted 25 companies and 84 aspiring entrepreneurs in Johnson County. To do that, their staff spent 447 hours doling out their professional advice. It seemed appropriate to take their services a few miles down Interstate 35.

So this month, the HEDC opened a new office in Overland Park. Their space in the Oak Park Library will be open twice a week and HEDC's executive director expects it will be busy - even in the throes of an economic downturn.

There's a bit of a cultural discrepancy when it comes to starting your own business when the economy is weak, Ramirez explains. Take your average American family. One parent loses her job. The other has his hours cut. Their mindset is to hold onto every red cent. "But if you have an immigrant in the same scenario -- their hours are being cut, they have a few bucks in the bank -- they say, 'I want to start my own business. I don't want to be at somebody else's mercy,'" Ramirez says. "So that's what we're seeing now to some degree. The economy is causing more individuals to start their businesses."

The new office hours at Oak Park aren't the only reason to think new Hispanic entrepreneurs could soon be contributing to the economic recovery. The HEDC also offers a 12-week, Spanish-speaking class on how to start a business. In its last session, 100 percent of the enrollees finished the course. Come August, another crop of prospective entrepreneurs will hit the books at HEDC's new space in the OP.

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