Willmar is a diverse community with a large Latino and Somali/East African population that is increasingly represented in the business world. Members of these communities own and operate approximately 12% of businesses in Willmar, as evidenced by a recent Business Retention and Expansion (BRE) Survey of diverse businesses undertaken by the EDC.
Last fall, the Southwest Initiative Foundation awarded a grant to the EDC to design and implement a BRE program for diverse businesses in the Willmar area. The goal was to meet with and survey at least 16 diverse businesses and to offer them the EDC’s referral and resource services.
During the survey process, the EDC identified 31 East African businesses, 27 Latino businesses and at least 8 Asian businesses in Willmar. In compiling the business lists, the EDC learned that companies owned by new Americans are relatively new in Willmar. The oldest Latino business has been operating in Willmar for nearly 20 years and three other Latino businesses for over 15 years each. Fully 13 businesses or 48% of the Latino businesses have been operating for more than ten years. And five or 19% of the Latino businesses have been started within the last two years. Businesses created by the Somali population are more recent. Most are less than 12 years in operation, and 9 companies or 29% have been operating for over 10 years. And 10 or 32% of the Somali businesses have been started in the last two years.
Research conducted as part of the project showed that more of the Somali businesses are located in downtown Willmar. Fully 55% are on Litchfield Avenue and 19% on Fourth Street. Latino businesses are more geographically dispersed, with only 19% on Litchfield Avenue and 66% located outside of the downtown area.
Efforts were made to obtain a good cross-section of Somali and Latino businesses (type of business, size, location and longevity). Good sample sizes were obtained for both Somali and Latino businesses. Aaron Backman, the Executive Director of the EDC, conducted 18 diverse BRE visits from February to July of 2017. Nine of the business owners were of Somali-descent, eight were Latino and one was Asian. Altogether, the 18 diverse businesses surveyed employ about 73 people, including 40 full-time persons and 33 part-time employees.
There were similarities and differences among the ethnic groups regarding the types of businesses represented. For Somali businesses, the most common were food-related (groceries and restaurants) with eight enterprises or 26% followed by transportation (taxis and long-haul transport) with five enterprises or 16%. For Latino businesses, the most common were food-related with ten enterprises or 37%, auto repairs/service/sales with eight or 30% and construction contractors with three or 11%.
When asked what they like about Willmar as a place to do business, business leaders most often replied that the community is “safe,” “quiet” and “diverse.” When asked about weaknesses in this community, responses were centered mainly on parking and things to do. A significant portion of the respondents identified no weaknesses in the community. Not naming weaknesses could indicate a high level of satisfaction with the community, but it also could indicate a reluctance to disclose negative comments about the community. Only one business owner mentioned ethnic discrimination and this person did not personally experience it. By and large, the diverse business owners in the survey described the people in Willmar as “good people” and “nice.”
Backman writes in the executive summary of the report, “New Americans bring with them their families, new ideas, cultural experiences and entrepreneurial spirit.“ Backman also reports that designing and implementing the BRE program for diverse businesses in Willmar has been an informative process. The EDC has become a better resource agency, gained a better knowledge of the new immigrant communities, and has established relationships with new partners.
The full report on the diverse business survey includes many other details, such as trade area and sales, property, space and signage, and technology adoption, and a list of survey outcomes. The full report can be accessed here.