[caption id="attachment_220472" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] La Plaza launched business classes last year, and half the students were running their own business at the time. More have since started their own business. | PHOTO COURTESY OF LA PLAZA[/caption]
GEORGETOWN — When their plan to redevelop a section of Georgetown to spark economic development in the area was rejected by the town’s mayor and council, Mary Dupont and her colleagues at La Plaza Latina could have thrown up their hands and moved on. Instead, they decided to regroup and try a different approach to better engaging the estimated 30% of Georgetown-area residents who are Latino.That approach focuses on increasing the capacity of the Latino business community so that they could take advantage of more economic development opportunities and grow stronger.Nationally, one in four new businesses is started by a Latino and they are the third-fastest rising economic group in the world.“They’re not sitting on the sidelines,” she said. “To not take advantage of an asset like that is crazy. So our goal is to support the growth of the Latino business community and help Latino families to use their money in a way that‘s going to allow them to build assets, to buy homes, start businesses or expand businesses.”Now the organization realizes there are plenty of strong, well-run Latino businesses that could benefit from access to traditional, mainstream access to financial information.For example, this summer a law requiring construction contractors to register with the state and obtain business licenses went into effect. La Plaza’s first big push was helping contractors navigate those new rules.Delaware does offer some small business training programs, most of it is for native English speakers. Plaza has partnered with local churches to launch free business courses — ranging from Quickbooks, profit and loss statements and more — to the Latino community in Spanish. The program just “graduated” its first entrepreneurs.Other services La Plaza has focused on educating on the benefits of credit and facilitating small business loans. Through a partnership with M&T Bank and community development financial institution (CDFI) True Access Capital, Plaza is able to help people who might not otherwise qualify have access to small business loans.As many successful small-business owners know, enthusiasm and a rigorous work ethic isn’t enough to grow a business. Being good will only get you so far. To grow, remain successful and weather the occasional economic storm or downturn, you have to understand cash flow and have at least some access to credit.But many Latino entrepreneurs were loath to take on debt and opted to either work on cash-basis or pay-as-you-go, Dupont said. While that method serves many businesses, it can cause economic stagnation.CDFIs all over the world use micro-loans to help marginalized communities grow. They act as a kind of pre-screener and guarantor for larger banks willing to provide riskier loans and lower rates. Loans range from $2,500 to $10,000 and Plaza will likely announce its first loan recipient soon.“M&T stepped right up because they believe in the power of this community,’ Dupont said. “There are a lot of businesses out there that are small but they could be getting a lot bigger if they had access to the information, access to credit and the support that they need.”While the folks at La Plaza are excited by their success in the wake of their first major disappointment, they haven’t given up on the idea of a Latino business district. After “graduating” its first class from the small business program, Dupont was excited to see the participants were networking and assisting each other. That bond might be the most important aspect of La Plaza’s effort - and may be the embryo of a Latino business community.Dupont envisions an eventual Latino chamber of commerce that could advocate for its own community. She also holds out hope that her plan for a Latino business district will find support from a Sussex County town willing to embrace the nearly 21,000 Latinos who live and work there.