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Committee aims to help new ethnic businesses in the area

Robert Perez, manager and part owner of El Tapatio in Willmar, right, speaks recently at the Latino Business Ow-ners Committee meeting at the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. Tribune photo by Eric Ludy

WILLMAR -- Ethnic businesses come and go in Willmar. Lourdez Schwab thinks she knows why.

Recent immigrants open businesses, she says, without the resources of the community behind them. T

hey might need a loan, but don't know how to go about securing one. They may find that business is slow, but aren't sure why. So, one by one, they close.

In an effort to help, Schwab, a personal banker with Heritage Bank of Willmar, has established a new business owner's committee along with co-founders Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, and Adolfo Avila of the Southwest Initiative Foundation of Hutchinson.

It aims to improve communication between Willmar's established business community and recently opened Latino and Somali businesses.

Already, the committee has grown significantly since its inaugural meeting two months ago. Then, just the three founders met. But on Thursday afternoon, more than a dozen business owners, employees and other community members were at the Willmar Chamber for the group's third meeting.

The conversation moved almost imperceptibly between English and Spanish as the idea for a new student mariachi band and the creation of a comprehensive list of ethnic businesses were discussed. Attendants came from a variety of backgrounds -- from Robert Perez, the manager of El Tapatio of Willmar, to Randy Young, who manages the Willmar Office Max.

Getting different points of view at one table is one of the central goals of the committee, said Schwab. Having everyone together will help build trust, she said, and encourage owners of newly established businesses to seek out the resources and organizations available to them.

"Say (Chamber president) Ken Warner walked into one of these businesses asking if they wanted to join the chamber. First, they might not know what the chamber is. Second, they're probably wondering, 'what does this guy want from me?' That's a mindset we're trying to break," said Schwab.

But to get more new business owners to the table will take some reaching out, said Schwab. She's depending on "go-getter business owners" like Robert Perez of El Tapatio to get in touch with newly established ethnic businesses and encourage them to come to the group's monthly meetings.

Perez said that when he heard of the committee from Schwab, he knew it was something he wanted to be involved in. He said it would be a chance to help end some of the miscommunication and negativity he sees in the community.

"This is about positive thinking and the will to change things," he said.

The idea of establishing a new business committee in Willmar came from Adolfo Avila, a "micro-enterprise specialist" with the Southwest Initiative Foundation who began a similar committee in Worthington just over two years ago.

He said groups catered specifically to ethnic business owners are necessary to allow them to see their common goals and avoid frivolous disputes. The Worthington committee, with its regular meetings and community events, is an example of that idea at work, he said.

"If there was politics, it was completely squashed," Avila said. "Now, if we have something going on in the Latino community, it's just a matter of making a phone call."

He said he aims for the Willmar committee to have similar success, but the group is taking things slow until it can build up enough membership.

Still, Avila was impressed to see the turnout at Thursday's meeting.

"It's a real nice thing to see all these people here," he said.