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Highlandtown would be a potential site for an International Business Corridor to take advantage of the community’s large immigrant population. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

City report calls for boosting immigrant businesses

Task force calls for an International Business Corridor

Baltimore’s immigrant population is growing, and that’s no accident.

In a report released Wednesday, the city and the New Americans Task Force make a variety of recommendations for retaining and attracting immigrants, including methods for business and workforce development.

Some of the more specific recommendations include the promotion of a designated International Business Corridor as well as the creation of an ambassadors program to assist immigrant business owners.

These two ideas would begin to take shape in Highlandtown, said Catalina Rodriguez-Lima, director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs. That neighborhood happens to have a large immigrant population, including many Hispanic individuals and some other ethnicities as well.

“That’s something that we don’t only welcome, but that we strive for,” said Kevin Bernhard, a board member of the Highlandtown Community Association.

Baltimore’s immigrant population was about 45,000 strong in 2011, making up about 7 percent of the city population. More than half of that group had arrived since 2000. According to the report, this 7 percent portion of the city owns 21 percent of Baltimore area businesses.

The International Business Corridor would be along Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown, said Rodriguez-Lima, where about a third of business owners are immigrant-born.

“I think it’s a great idea. We’ve kicked it around for years, and never really got somebody to fund it,” said Chris Ryer, director of the Southeast Community Development Corp. and a member of the task force. “If you modeled the Eastern Avenue corridor like the Charles Street corridor, I think you’d have a very interesting story to tell.”

This story could then be marketed to city residents and tourists alike.

“It’s so easy because people want the real thing,” said Ryer. “They don’t want to go to a chain Tex-Mex restaurant. They want to go to a real Honduran or El Salvadoran restaurant with a real family running it, and we have that.”

The next challenge, however, is teaching that family how to market to non-immigrants and other ethnicities.

“A lot of these guys, they don’t know how to do a traditional American business plan,” said Ryer.

A proposed solution to that issue is the ambassadors program, which would also be piloted on Eastern Avenue, said Rodriguez-Lima. Her office has been in talks with Johns Hopkins University about partnering on this program.

Business students would serve as the ambassadors by participating in an academic program. They would provide advice on business planning, marketing and accessing resources within the city.

“I think it’s brilliant,” said Bernhard, of the Highlandtown Community Association.

The immigrant population has been behind a “struggling upward movement” in that neighborhood, he said. Where these entrepreneurs might need assistance is in creating business plans that complement the area.

“One of the complaints that I hear from my peers is that there’s a lack of diversity on Eastern Avenue” in terms of restaurant and retail offerings, said Bernhard. “If they had a little more guidance, I think they could not only succeed, but they could be extremely successful.”

Many of the other suggestions in the report involve partnerships with other organizations or the creation of programs within city agencies outside the mayor’s office.

“One of the requirements when we put the task force together was to think of existing resources … let’s not reinvent the wheel,” said Rodriguez-Lima.

The task force particularly looked to get other agencies involved so initiatives would stay in effect after the mayor leaves office, she said. It is just now getting started in the process of introducing and implementing recommendations.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has taken steps she says will create a welcoming atmosphere for immigrants, including an executive order two years ago that, among other things, prohibits city police from inquiring about residents’ immigration status.

Bernhard is a fan of openness to immigrants and said he wants his neighborhood to be known for its diversity.

“If I can look down my street and see an equal representation of all ethnicities I’ll be happy,” he said.


About Lizzy McLellan

Lizzy McLellan covers finance, technology, start-ups and small business for The Daily Record.