We are flashing back to an article originally written by Pamela Shupp and published in Expansion Solutions Magazine in 2011

Just an hour east of Philadelphia and three from New York and Washington, Greater Reading is blessed by geography with a strategic location and by nature with beautiful vistas and lush, fertile land.  Leveraging Diversity in Greater ReadingHere in the heart of the northeast corridor, the benefits of proximity to major metro centers are matched with superb quality of life factors—affordable homes, good schools and easy commutes. As in many communities, recent years have brought rapid demographic shifts, and the way we respond is what sets Greater Reading apart. We are leveraging our diversity for success.

The Greater Reading area is reinventing itself by leveraging its great strengths—location, quality of life, and a growing Latino population. With the support of the Berks Economic Partnership (BEP), we are recognizing Hispanic entrepreneurship as an economic driver, and creating a business friendly environment that offers not just an able workforce, but culturally rich experiences.

It makes good economic sense—the Hispanic community is growing not just in number: it is growing the marketplace. In Pennsylvania, Hispanic-owned businesses increased 47 percent between 1997 and 2006—nine percent faster than the national average and more than three times the state average for all businesses. In 2010, there were over 700 Hispanic businesses in the City of Reading alone, Berks County’s metro center.

After three decades of decline, the city and county’s population is growing due to an influx of Hispanics. Latinos now comprise more than 16 percent of the population of Greater Reading, and a clear majority of the city—between 58 and 70 percent, according to estimates. Signs in Spanish point to corner bodegas, travel agencies and beauty shops. Locals enjoy tacos, empenadas, pupusas and flan while listening to the pulsing salsa beats of cumbia music or hip-hop influenced reggaeton. Business leaders, non-profit directors, educators, restaurateurs and artists hail from every nation in South and Central America, bringing with them the distinctive flavors of their native lands, keen entrepreneurial fervor, and a commitment to make a good life for their families.

In turning the challenges of rapid demographic change into assets, BEP has joined with a number of partners, some traditional, some new.

The Small Business Development Center (SBDC), one of our long-time economic development partners, created the Latino Business Resource Center (LBRC) in 2006, in collaboration with Kutztown University. LBRC provides consulting and support—including a 12-week bi-lingual business development course for Hispanic entrepreneurs—and builds the capacity of economic development organizations to work with the fastest-growing workforce segment in Pennsylvania. Todate, seventy-one LBRC graduates have started 15 businesses, creating $348,000 in business investment and 45 jobs.

The Business Resource Center, launched in 2009 by the Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce & Industry, is a bi-lingual nexus of local resources for entrepreneurs. And, the Latino Chamber
of Commerce is a gateway for regional, national and international corporations to connect with the Greater Reading Latino business community. Berks Economic Partnership collaborated with these partners to engage the large Hispanic workforce. With their help, Vancouver based Sun Rich Fresh Foods, which situated its East Coast facility here, built a 43,000 square foot processing facility on a former brownfield site and employs 250 Reading residents.

These and many other partnerships are leveraging diversity for success that may not look the same as yesterday’s version, but it’s success nonetheless.

Meet, for example, Johanny Cepeda, an energetic mother with a master’s degree in education who moved from New York City with a dream to open her own business. Today, Mi Casa Su Casa is a successful Dominican restaurant in downtown Reading and Johanny, named Business Person of the Year in 2010, is a beloved member of the community.

Meet Hector Ruiz, the longtime chef of a restaurant in one of Reading’s premier historic districts whose owner decided to retire. With the help of the SBDC, Hector developed a plan, secured financing, and is now the proud owner of Sofrito Gastro Pub, serving “globally inspired, locally created” meals to a burgeoning clientele.

And finally, meet Noe Cabello, Reading High School’s first Hispanic valedictorian. Featured in a June 2011 USA Today article titled “New Hispanic Majority Transforms Culture of PA Region,” Noe came to the United States with his family when he was eight years old. He looks forward to the day when such distinctions no longer qualify as headline news.

So do we. Greater Reading reflects the growing diversity of our nation, and we are transforming that diversity into a new kind of success. Neither blind nor resistant to change, we welcome Hispanic-owned businesses as an engine of job creation and a cause for celebration.

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