OTTUMWA — Whatever language entrepreneurs speak, one Ottumwan has helped them achieve their goals.
Himar Hernandez moved to Ottumwa to marry his high school sweetheart; he'd been an exchange student at Ottumwa High School 20 years ago.
His work for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach has allowed him to help Ottumwans start businesses. He has the advantage of speaking Spanish fluently. He is originally from the Canary Islands, a series of islands in the Atlantic that belong to Spain.
Iowa International Center will present the Passport to Prosperity Award to four honorees at its 2013 Passport to Prosperity celebration. Hernandez is one of them. It's the first time the state group has given an award outside of Des Moines, Hernandez believes. He's glad to see them recognizing that there is diversity in rural Iowa, as well as in the big cities.
While he works with anyone meeting the requirements set by ISU Extension, it's his work with the immigrant population that has the center ready to give him the award.
"Hernandez is credited with helping Ottumwa reverse the trend facing many communities in Iowa — a decline in population and economic growth. He has helped create opportunities that are attracting new residents," wrote Gale Brubaker of Iowa International Center in a press release.
Wapello County currently lists 11 percent of its population as Hispanic. Census reports indicate that without companies that purposely bring in immigrant workers, the community would be shrinking. The reports also show Ottumwa had began shrinking before the influx of new people.
"First generation immigrants are very entrepreneurial," Hernandez said. "But minority business owners face very big challenges. Permits and regulations, language, where do they get funding to expand, how do you keep the books. And I try to get them to market to more [than just] the Latino community."
His job is to act as a facilitator, a tutor to walk potential business owners through the process of starting and running a business. There are more than 20 Latino-owned businesses in Ottumwa.
Still, not everyone was happy with the shift to a more diverse area, Hernandez said.
"I hate to say it, but I think that's actually part of the process," Hernandez said, adding that people will be fearful on both sides of the customs counter. "It's when we get to know our neighbors by name that we start seeing them as people like ourselves."
Now that second-generation Latino residents actually go to school in Ottumwa, there's more hope of that.
"I think it'll be different with the kids. Adults may have had to struggle with immigration, but the kids are being raised alongside each other; that's what they know, Hernandez said. "This award isn't about me. It's about Ottumwa and that we've done a good job integrating, of getting past that initial reluctance or fear."
Iowa International Center’s Passport to Prosperity is scheduled for Sept. 28 at Drake University in Des Moines.
— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark