Fort Collins' Latino business community forming its own chamber of commerce – Coloradoan

As one of the only bilingual bankers at Elevations Credit Union’s new Old Town Fort Collins branch, Julian Lozano said he started seeing Latino business owners struggle to tap into federal aid available during the COVID-19 pandemic. 
It mirrored what Jose Luis Ramos saw as a bilingual business specialist hired by the city’s Economic Health Office at the height of the pandemic. 
Latino businesses “didn’t have access to resources, loans from the federal government,” he said. They needed a group that could get together and share information and resources,” said Ramos, the former owner of Las Salsitas Mexican restaurant. 
He pulled together six Latino restaurant owners and started talking about a Latino chamber. They loved the idea and invited more business owners in to the conversation. Today, he said, it’s grown to 75 Latino owned businesses. 
Lozano said he started letting the community know he was there to help. “It took on a life of its own,” Lozano said. “In talking with everyone, we felt this is the best course of action.”
Lozano and others involved in the chamber effort have identified between 75 and 150 Latino businesses that might be interested in joining the chamber. 
With roughly 7,000 businesses registered in the city of Fort Collins, only about 6% are Latino owned, Ramos said. And only about 20% of those belong to the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce, Lozano estimated. 
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The fledgling group has “gotten a lot of guidance” from the Fort Collins chamber as to how and where to start, understand what steps needed to be done and more, he said. Because it is not official yet, the group can’t charge membership fees. But Ramos said the soon-to-be formed group has commitments from 75 businesses to join the chamber. 
Fort Collins Area Chamber President and CEO Ann Hutchison said her organization has been “supportive of their work, supportive of the conversation and has been in the role of cheerleader … since these conversations started almost a year ago.” 
The Fort Collins chamber is thrilled anytime businesses come together to make sure they have a stronger voice, she said. “That is what we are observing with these Spanish-speaking businesses. We want to be in a space where we can support them, support their work to the point where we hope, someday very soon, the chamber as a membership option looks very attractive to them.”
As the Fort Collins chamber has worked with Lozano’s group, “it has caused us to reflect and take stock in what we are doing as an organization and why we may or many not be a place where Latino businesses feel comfortable,” Hutchison said. “We’re doing a lot of introspection and are really focused on how we can make our organization more inclusive and a place where all kinds of business owners feel really comfortable coming together and accessing the networks we can provide.”
The chamber does not track background information of its members, but Hutchison estimated “a small percent” of its membership are Latino businesses. 
In its infancy, a core group of Latino businesses is helping get the organization going. The first step, Lozano said, is becoming a nonprofit. It takes about six months to a year to become a 501(c)(6), he said. 
Once the group is official, Ramos will act as an adviser. His role as a city employee prevents him from taking on an official position, he said. 
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Anna Martinez, who co-owns Cut & Shave Barbershop with her brother and sister, said there’s no real support network, formal or informal, for Latino business owners. She was excited about the possibility of a Latino chamber and said she would definitely join. “There is strong support for other cultures, but I don’t see strong support of the Latino cultures as much.” 
Surviving a three-month shutdown during COVID-19 was challenging, she said. The shop applied for a handful of loans for federal aid during the pandemic and got none of them.
Now that things are back to some semblance of normalcy, the shop faces new competition from people cutting hair without licenses.
 As a barber who is a woman, Martinez said she faces some biases from people who don’t believe she can cut men’s hair. “I’m a barber, not a cosmetologist,” she said. “I’m working harder to bring that image out.” 
Pat Ferrier is a senior reporter covering business, health care and growth issues in Northern Colorado. Contact her at patferrier@coloradoan.com. Please support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a subscription today.

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By Kwetu Buzz

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