Hispanic community could be sleeping giant for Wichita economy

Marco Alocer publishes the English/Spanish publication El Perico in Wichita. (March 9, 2016)
Marco Alocer publishes the English/Spanish publication El Perico in Wichita. (March 9, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

When Adrienne Foster was a senior in high school in 1990, Kansas was home to about 94,000 Hispanics.

Flash to 2014, and that number had swelled to close to 316,000, an increase of more than 336 percent in only 25 years.

Foster, chairwoman of the Wichita Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, said the growth trend in the Hispanic demographic in the state, and in Wichita, is changing the economic landscape.

“To me, 1990 doesn’t seem like that long ago,” Foster said. “The growth that we’ve seen since then is humongous.

“A few years ago, it wasn’t cool to be Latino, but now it is. People are realizing our buying power as consumers and our voting power.”

The latest U.S. Census numbers from 2014 show that Wichita is home to about 60,500 Hispanics, or about 16 percent of the city’s population.

By nearly all educated estimates, the number is only expected to grow, along with the rest of the Hispanic demographic in the U.S.

For Wichita, that type of growth could mean an increase to the city’s tax base, along with a rise in small businesses and a swelling consumer base.

“If you look over the past 10 years and to the next 40 years, a lot is going to be driven by the Hispanic population,” said Rob Ayala-Flores, founder of Puente Marketing and Advertising out of Kansas City, Mo. “What we’ve found is this: The dramatic growth of the U.S. Hispanic population has a direct correlation to the growth of Hispanic businesses.”

Changing landscape

Ron Cornejo, a lifelong Wichita resident and longtime businessman whose family started the construction firm Cornejo & Sons, said the Hispanic community’s footprint has been steadily growing for decades in Wichita.

“At one time, there was a fairly small Hispanic presence, but that’s changed,” Cornejo said. “Today, the Hispanic community is a big piece of Wichita.

“I don’t know if people realize just how much that group brings to the economy of the city.”

According to research firm Reference USA, the Wichita area is home to 844 Hispanic-owned business establishments.

Though economist Jeremy Hill of Wichita State University warned that the numbers may not be exact, he said the figure is a good starting point in understanding this segment of the Wichita economy.

Most of the establishments listed in the Reference USA finding – 465 of them – have between one and four employees. This correlates with Wichita City Council member Janet Miller’s view that there is significant untapped potential for growth in the Hispanic-owned small-business realm.

“I believe we, as a city, need to do more to reach out to the Hispanic community,” Miller said. “When we talk about small business in Wichita, we know a great number of them comprise the backbone of our community.

“Minority communities have traditionally been very strong in this area.”

Language barrier

Because of the language barrier, part of any possible divide between Wichita’s Hispanic population – many of whom either don’t speak English or don’t feature it as their native tongue – can simply be attributed to a lack of communication.

Former television news anchor and Wichita resident Marco Alcocer recognized a need in this area, leading to the launching of a free monthly bilingual publication called El Perico Informador y Parlanchin, or “the chatterbox parrot that keeps you informed.”

Alcocer, who started the publication in 2014, said El Perico grew by about 300 percent in its first year. He said that bridging the language and cultural gap is a two-way street.

“It’s important that every business that is open to the public is open to everybody,” Alcocer said. “If a Hispanic business wants to grow, it should have signs in both languages. They should be catering to more than one group.

“Also, some of the American businesses, if they want grow and have more people come in their doors, they need to welcome minorities.”

While the current presidential election cycle has been at times filled with talk about immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally – often the reference is to Mexicans coming to the U.S. – Alcocer said a good chunk of the Wichita Hispanic population has been here for generations.

“Some of the people here have been here since at least the start of the 1900s,” Alcocer said. “I think the important thing is to be able to collaborate so that we can see all Wichita businesses grow. We need to help each other, and that will help stimulate our economy.”

Young demographic

The Hispanic population is also young.

Hispanic students make up about one-third of the total enrollment in the Wichita Public Schools district, according to district figures. As soon as next year or the year after, Hispanic students could be the largest ethnic group in the system.

“We’re very young,” Foster said. “There’s a statistic out there that says that one Hispanic person in the U.S. turns 18 every minute.

“We’re also the ones that people are going to need to come work for them. As baby boomers get older and continue to retire, there is a gap in management where individuals will need to be replaced.”

In the area of networking, both Foster and Ayala-Flores – a former Wichita resident – said the Hispanic business community also has a tendency to want more practical pieces of business advice rather than the typical mixer event over drinks.

“Many Latinos don’t think of networking like we might in the general market,” Ayala-Flores said. “They’re not typically interested in meeting people they don’t know and having a drink. They want something they can use in their business.”

Foster said that the Wichita Hispanic Chamber planned to put on more specific-type business enhancement events this year.

“Latinos are a proud people,” Foster said. “Sometimes going to a networking event – such as an event put on by Wichita Metro Chamber – could be seen as a sign of a person wanting to leave their community. Sometimes that Latino pride can be a hindrance to our success.”

Miller, who represents central and north Wichita, said the city could potentially assist Hispanic businesses with outreach programs to help with things like permits or licensing.

A sleeping giant

According to a census projection done in 1996, Kansas wasn’t expected to be home to 280,000 Hispanic residents until 2025, though it raced past that number sometime in 2011.

While the numbers are eye-popping to some, they don’t take into account the Hispanic population in Wichita and Kansas as a whole who may be here illegally.

Brant Dumford, part-owner of the Delano Hometown Bakery, said those Hispanics also contribute to the Wichita economy.

“The Hispanic community – authorized or unauthorized – has a very positive impact on Wichita,” Dumford said.

“What some people say about the unauthorized just isn’t true at all. These are people that hold on to the American dream tighter than anyone. These are people who work and who are some of the most humble people on the planet.”

Dumford, who said he is of mixed race (African-American, white and Hispanic), said he’d like to see more outreach to the Hispanic community by city and business leaders.

Ayala-Flores said he doesn’t think Wichita is a closed-off community, adding that he thinks the city has a rich tradition of entrepreneurship.

“All you have to do is look at the numbers,” Ayala-Flores said. “Are people aware of the sleeping giant in Wichita? I don’t think they are.

“Pretty soon, and it will be overnight, people are going to notice that all these Hispanic businesses have opened up on the north side.”

Bryan Horwath: 316-269-6708, @bryan_horwath

Wichita Hispanic population

2009: 43,877

2010: 52,077

2011: 54,684

2012: 56,871

2013: 59,391

2014: 60,502

Source: U.S. Census