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Slow economy hinders, redirects Charlotte's Hispanic business

Signs for Latino businesses on Charlotte's Central Avenue. hspace=4
Julie Rose
Signs for Latino businesses on Charlotte's Central Avenue. hspace=4

Since the mid 90s, the Latino population has exploded in the mid-Atlantic. In North Carolina, the Hispanic population more than doubled between 2000 and 2008 to 684,000. With the growth comes a host of goods and services targeted at Hispanics. The Charlotte region has also felt the effects of that growth as businesses have cropped up to serve the population. But there's nothing like a recession to slow things down a little and bring a shift. WFAE's Simone Orendain reports: It's a searing hot Friday afternoon at the Darby Acres Shopping Center on Central Avenue. The mall in this mostly Latino part of east Charlotte has a Hispanic music store, a People's Bank branch that caters to Spanish speakers and other businesses with Spanish signs on the windows. A pushcart vendor rings a bell and sells popsicles. People aren't exactly crowding around. Pifano is an illegal immigrant who doesn't give his last name. He sits on a stoop outside a used clothing store eating a popsicle. He says, "Before, you couldn't even walk in this parking lot because it was so full of cars." The native of Mexico has been out of work for more than four months. He did construction for a homebuilder that folded in February. "Things around here are going very badly. We don't have work. It's very complicated because we just don't have work," he says. Pifano makes a sweeping motion with his arm toward a row of men sitting on store window ledges. A few go in and out of shops. Over on South Boulevard, a handful of customers walks into the Mas Por Menos grocery- that's "more for less." The store also offers notary, remittance and copy service. One customer grumbles about the lack of work. Owner Saul Flores Lazo has seen sales at his store drop by 30 percent over the past year. "Our customers are from different Latino countries. They usually come to buy everything they need. When they don't work too much, don't send too much money to their countries, don't spend too much for their homes, it's a little difficult for them. And it's difficult for us," says Flores Lazo. The Pew Hispanic Center released a survey in January that shows more than two thirds of Latinos were holding off on discretionary spending and 71 percent of Latino immigrants were sending less money to their home countries. The Center also released an analysis of 2008 unemployment figures and found foreign born Hispanics were among the hardest hit because a significant number are in the construction sector. Another factor that's keeping Latinos out of stores, according to Flores Lazo, is immigration crackdowns. The 287-g program allows local law enforcement to process illegal immigrants for deportation. Since the program started in 2006, 7,100 have been processed for deportation in Mecklenburg County alone. Just the fear of that prospect can clear the streets. Eliseo Pascual is a commercial loan officer for Self-Help, which is a banking branch of the non-profit Center for Responsible Lending. In the last several months, he's seen a dramatic drop in the number Latinos inquiring about loans. "Many of them have closed business just because of the general economic situation but also many of them have been hit by the immigration situation. Their customers have been forced to go out of state or out of the country," says Pascual. But it looks like a shift is happening during this recession. Pascual says he's seeing another type of Latino that's checking about loans. This prospective client has relocated from the northeast. He says, "They speak English, they have a credit history. They have other types of experience that help to establish business with a better foundation." UNC Charlotte Professor Owen Furuseth follows the impacts of immigration on Charlotte's neighborhoods. He says recently there's been an upward trend in the number of Mecklenburg County Hispanics that hold US citizenship. Furuseth says, "What we have is a community that I think is settled down, has roots, is not going to go anywhere just because the economy has hit a rough patch right now." Furuseth anticipates after this rough patch, Charlotte's Latino community will strengthen. And beyond their local neighborhood stores, mainstream businesses will continue to woo them. One recent example: Food Lion's announcement that it's expanding Hispanic food offerings at 19 Charlotte area stores.