CLEARWATER — The city's Latino population is booming, but Hispanic businesses along Drew Street — or "Avenida Latina" — cater almost exclusively to Mexicans and other Latinos.
The businesses' economic and cultural isolation could end, say Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce officials, if those business would just broaden their appeal to customers who don't speak Spanish.
But the chamber's past efforts to build relationships with Hispanic businesses have sputtered. Latino members of the chamber's Hispanic Business Council said obstacles include distrust of outsiders and the belief among some businesses that a chamber membership isn't worth the cost.
Still, the chamber isn't ready to give up.
Many Latino small businesses say they are content serving their own community.
"I've heard it over the years from hundreds of people: 'You know, they're not Mexican, they're not from Hidalgo,' '' said Robin Gomez, the city auditor and Hispanic-Latino liaison. Hidalgo is the central Mexican state, where the majority of the city's Latino population has roots.
Gomez said he replies that potential customers all have one thing in common: cash.
" 'You want to make money don't you?' " Gomez says he tells them.
Latinos now make up at least 15 percent of the Clearwater population of 108,732. At Amaryllis Beauty Salon on Drew Street, manager Toni Rangel estimates about 90 percent of her clients are Latino. Univision plays on the television in the corner. Stylists chat in Spanish with clients sitting in violet chairs amid floral arrangements. A man waiting reads a Spanish-language newspaper.
Asked if she desired more customers from outside the Hispanic community, Rangel said sure, but if they don't come, that's okay, too.
"Business is good," she said.
Her son-in-law, Peter Perez, who started the salon business with his wife Claudia almost two decades ago, says they had been a chamber member at one time. Though they still own the business, they moved to Texas several years ago and didn't see the point of keeping the membership.
If the chamber wants to increase membership among Latino business owners, it should advertise in Spanish-language media, go to soccer games, even put up flyers on church bulletin boards, he said.
One thing he noticed while a member, Perez said, was that the chamber seemed more concerned about other parts of town.
"The beach gets number one priority, the interior comes second," he said.
At a chamber task force meeting last week , some ideas were batted around to raise the chamber's profile with Hispanics: perhaps setting up tables at a popular Sunday Latino soccer league, maybe even sponsoring a team; printing a brochure in Spanish touting the benefits of chamber membership; bringing more Latino speakers to chamber events.
Something needs to be done, said Bob Clifford, the chamber's president and CEO.
"We've been terribly unsuccessful," he said. "It's been constantly shooting at a moving target."
But a demographic shift might present a new opening for the chamber. In recent years, the city's predominant Latino group, Mexicans from Hidalgo, has been joined by Colombians, Peruvians and Puerto Ricans.
Puerto Ricans, from the island and other parts of Florida and the country, are now the fastest-growing segment of the city's Hispanic population, Gomez said.
Michelle Velez, a business consultant with an office on Drew Street, said there is a need among her clients for the chamber's expertise.
"Many of them don't know about social media, about websites, about insurance," she said. "I'm like their phone book."
The key, she said, is to gain the trust of an often insular community. Her first client on Drew Street, Amaryllis, opened the door to her for others.
Such a walk-and-talk strategy might be the most important realization for the chamber, said Cathy Germer, vice president of business development and membership adviser for the chamber.
The chamber has 780 members but doesn't track how many of those firms are Latino-owned. Annual memberships range from $395 to $2,500.
"They're not just walking in the front door. You have to reach out," Germer said.
Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago