A changing landscape as immigrants
Immigrant-owned stores are springing up in outstate cities. Nurto Ali and her daughter Amina Abdulkadir run a beauty store called Nuura in Willmar. Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune
By ALLIE SHAH
July 22, 2012
Once the henna artist arrives, business will really take off, Yonis Hajisaid said.
One of downtown Willmar's newest entrepreneurs, he owns the Nuura Shop, the latest Somali-owned business to open in downtown Willmar in the past five years.
The change from a barber shop to a henna and perfume parlor is a sign of how new immigrants are transforming business districts outstate just as they have along some main streets in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Drawn to Willmar because of jobs at the Jennie-O meatpacking plants, a growing number of Somali immigrants are calling this west-central Minnesota town home and opening small businesses on the side.
The official count says 700 of Willmar's 19,610 residents are originally from Somalia, but city officials and Somali community leaders say the real number is at least 2,000. The city's Latino population has leveled off at 4,099 according to the latest U.S. census data.
In cities such as Rochester and Faribault, too, new immigrants have arrived, adding new flavors and customers to downtown areas.
"Main Streets in many smaller Minnesota communities have not fared so well the last 25 or 30 years," said Bill Blazar, an executive at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. "The growth of immigrant populations and the businesses that are a direct result really are a shot in the arm. They're an economic development program."
The changes have also created angst for some residents.
"For those who have been here a long time, it's a lot different," said Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. "It's never going to be like it once was, and there's plenty of opportunity to make it viable again."
In a nod to the growing Somali presence in outstate communities, a Minneapolis-based agency that offers technical support to help African immigrants run their businesses has planted flags in Willmar and Rochester.
Yusuf Ahmed heads up the Willmar branch office of the African Development Center of Minnesota, which opened downtown last September. The building, painted a vivid green and orange, stands out among the red-bricked edifices surrounding it.
"Somalis, by nature I tell you, are entrepreneurs," Ahmed said, smiling. Many pull a night shift at the turkey processing plant and run their business on the side, with help from their families.
A recent survey of more than a dozen African-owned businesses in Willmar, conducted by the ADC and the city's chamber of commerce, drew 11 complete responses. It found that almost all were established in the past five years, and more than a third opened in the past year. The vast majority of the 11 African-owned businesses in Willmar surveyed are stores; they sell everything from food to books to gifts to housewares.
Most Somali business owners have never run a business before and lack formal training, the survey found. But they hire people. The 11 businesses have created about 23 full-time jobs and 16 part-time jobs. The vast majority of employees are African immigrants, according to the survey.
Walking through the streets of Willmar earlier this week, Ahmed stopped at what is widely believed to be the first Somali-owned business in town -- a corner store with a sign that reads: "Bihi's Shop. Goat meat. Dry goods. Phone cards. Dairy."
Outside the former paint store, two Somali men sat on a park bench beneath the grocery's large picture window. Inside, the items sold include diapers, cereal, large bottles of sesame oil for cooking, plastic tubs full of dates and burlap sacks of basmati rice.
Right next to the store, Bihi runs a café. The bar stools and lunch counter inside the restaurant are remnants of the old Town Talk Bakery -- a social hub that drew people from all over the city and surrounding towns, recalled Richard Hoglund, lifelong Willmar resident and former mayor.
After the bakery closed, he said, a new restaurant run by a Latino immigrant opened. Now, it's the Bihi Restaurant.
Back in the day, he said, downtown Willmar was the commercial and social center for the region. That changed in the 1960s, after the Kandi Mall was built outside of downtown and the department stores followed. Then came the big-box stores, and the rest is history, Hoglund said.
Downtown got a boost when Latino immigrants started to arrive in large numbers in the early 1990s. They opened businesses and over time, their businesses evolved to include law offices, insurance agencies and real estate offices. Roberto Valdez is the program coordinator of the Willmar Area Multicultural Market, a nonprofit agency downtown that helps immigrants start their own businesses. He said from 2005 to 2010, the number of ethnic-owned businesses in the Willmar area has jumped from 3 to 42.
Source: Star Tribune