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Laura De Gomez owner of Salsa Express, right, and Rodeo Moda Y Mas, left, just two of the many Latino businesses in downtown photographed Friday, Feb. 23, 2011, in Waterloo, Iowa. (MATTHEW PUTNEY / Courier Photo Editor)

WATERLOO, Iowa --- As the Latino and Hispanic population grows in the Cedar Valley, so is the number of Latino-owned businesses.

The 2010 U.S. Census showed the Latino and Hispanic population in Waterloo more than doubled since 2000 from 1,806 to 3,827.

In that time, Latino-owned businesses have grown from a handful to more than two dozen in Cedar Falls and Waterloo.

"It's a really big number compared to 10 years ago," said Laura De Gomez, owner of Salsa Express restaurant and Rodeo Moda y Mas retail store.

Statewide, the number of Latino-owned businesses jumped from about 1,343 in 1997 to 2,252 in 2007, according to estimates compiled by Sal Alaniz, head of the job and economic development committee of the Iowa Division of Latino Affairs.

Gomez and other Latino community leaders are forming an alliance to try to expand the business community and help would-be business owners get started. Gomez and Claudia Rivera, of the Waterloo Public Library are forming the Alliance of Latinos Moving Ahead.

ALMA has mostly focused on planning an annual Cinco De Mayo celebration. Gomez said the organization will expand its role to help members of the Hispanic and Latino community get in touch with organizations that help business owners get established. Groups such as the main street programs in Cedar Falls and Waterloo, My EntreNet and the Small Business Development Center can help new Latino businesses get established. Latinos may not know the organizations are there and the groups may not know a fledgling Latino business needs advice or assistance, Gomez said.

Gomez met with Main Street Waterloo executive director Jeff Kurtz to discuss plans for the group. Kurtz said the ALMA plans complement many of Main Street's goals including drawing retail business and expanding the farmer's market.

"As a growing demographic in Iowa, the Latino community is essential to have at the table to make those things happen," he said.

Gomez said Main Street Waterloo was helped her when she established her first business in downtown Waterloo and could do the same for others.

"Main Street is very welcoming and they give you a lot of support," she said, adding the group is just one entity with which she plans to establish ties.

Gomez said the group could establish a network of Latino business owners similar to one in Des Moines. She said she doesn't believe there is a large enough business climate now, but it could grow.

"The more people who find the resources to do it, the more businesses will be started," she said. "Many have that dream here."

The Latino population shift also has encouraged non-Latino businesses to tap into the expanding market. The Latino shelves at grocery stores have expanded in the last decade.

"There's definitely a demand for it," said Rob Green, store operations manager at Cedar Falls Hy-Vee store.

Green added that shifting tastes can also explain the expanded market for Hispanic food.

"Not everybody wants to make meat and potatoes every night," he said.

Gomez said whatever the reason the food is on the shelf, more places to find familiar foods also helps Latinos and Hispanics feel at home in the Cedar Valley.


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