Victor Manuel Ramos | Sun Sentinel
The hundreds of thousands of Hispanics who have settled in Central Florida are contributing more to the area than just raw population growth.
The Hispanic population—growing by four people every hour for the past five years to zoom past the half-million mark in 2005—now pumps more than $16 billion into the region.
And Hispanics’ economic contribution, by supplying labor, creating businesses and spending money in the communities where they live, is expected to jump beyond $20 billion during the next two years.
That picture emerged from studies released Thursday at the Hispanic Summit, an annual gathering of business and community leaders started last year by the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Vilma Quintana, the summit’s director, said the two-day event seeks to unite people “to talk about the power, the strength and the contributions of Hispanics.”
The findings could, in some ways, be summed up in the lives of people such as Adiveliz Torres and Juan Batista, east Orlando residents who moved from Puerto Rico within the past five years and started their own small home-repair business.
They started out with little money, few customers and a lot of hope. Now they work seven days a week and are saving to buy a house.
“We are young, we have lots of energy, we are together all the time, and we are happy with our business,” Torres, 26, said. “We are not going back to Puerto Rico.”
Batista, 31, has a simple answer to why he is here: “It’s the economy.”
The new economic reality is not lost on many seeking to harness the market’s potential. About 1,000 people of all backgrounds registered for the sold-out event, attending sessions on economic, demographic and political issues and hearing from speakers from the region and beyond. They spoke about how what is happening in Central Florida is part of a larger movement of Hispanics joining the cultural and economic mainstream.
‘On the move’
“Hispanics in this country are people on the move. We are no longer an emerging minority,” keynote speaker Antonia Novello said at a breakfast attended by more than 650 people. The Puerto Rican woman, who is now New York’s health commissioner, was the first Hispanic and female U.S. surgeon general, under President George H.W. Bush.
“The time has come,” Novello said to cheers, “for us to have a piece of the American pie. . . . We strengthen, we do not weaken, the fabric of America.”
The summit continues today at the Orange County Convention Center, with Puerto Rico Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila as one of the featured speakers.
The three studies commissioned for the summit shed light on growth, economic impact and attitudes among Hispanics in Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Seminole and Volusia counties. Among their findings:
Hispanics in Central Florida grew by 49 percent since 2000, adding up to 549,563 by last year. Most Hispanics reside in Orange County, but Lake and Osceola showed the highest pace of growth at more than 70 percent.
Hispanics spent $8.2 billion in Central Florida last year. As of the current year, they have also created about 20,000 businesses that employ close to 200,000 people. Their yearly spending, which multiplies in impact as those dollars filter through other sectors of the economy, is expected to top $10 billion within two years.
Puerto Ricans, the largest segment of the Hispanic population, started more than 3,300 businesses in the region. But their challenge as entrepreneurs is to learn business skills and to grow beyond largely mom-and-pop operations.
“We have significant gains in new businesses,” said Orlando economist Hank Fishkind, author of one of the research studies.
Opportunities, challenges And as businesses open, job opportunities expand, he said “If it was the case that migrants were taking jobs and resources from residents, then unemployment would be going up. That’s simply not true.”
The studies also identified some challenges. In a survey that examined attitudes and values among Hispanics and other Central Floridians, Hispanics were more concerned about many money matters—such as paying taxes and insurance, managing credit-card debt or being able to cover medical costs.
“If I’m a newcomer, I am going to be making less money, my job is more vulnerable, so those concerns are somewhat expected,” said David Hill, the research consultant for the survey.
Balancing those financial worries are people such as Luz Reyes and her husband, who left life in Puerto Rico for an apartment in Kissimmee. Reyes, an unemployed teacher, relies on help from her daughter and son to make ends meet. Her husband’s monthly Social Security check of $606 is not enough.
“I live each day as it comes,” Reyes, 55, said.
Compared with what some came from—such as high property taxes and living costs in the Northeast—life here is much easier, though, many say.
“I tell people in New Jersey that you can get by with less wages in Florida because your cost of living is less,” said Roberto Rodriguez, 48, a property manager who took the trade-off gladly to live near Howey-in-the-Hills in Lake County.
The surveys also showed that Hispanics shared similar life priorities with the rest of the population.
Many of the newcomers, regardless of background, agree that the community needs better health care and improved education. And Hispanic or not, everyone hates the traffic congestion that so many new people have brought to region.
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