WILKES-BARRE — More than a year ago, Dominican Republic native Miguel Perdomo transformed the former White House cafe on Hazle Street into the Casa Blanca Restaurant Bar & Grill to serve Caribbean and international fare.
“I see a lot of future here,” said Perdomo, who also owns a home appliance sales and repair shop on the same street.
This “future” inspired Perdomo and other Hispanic business owners to found Latinos Working Together in NEPA to serve the growing Hispanic population in the city and region.
Hispanic or Latino residents now make up 16% of Luzerne County’s population, up from 1.2% in 2000, said Teri Ooms, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development. In Lackawanna County, Hispanic or Latino residents make up 9.45% of the population, up from about 1.4% in 2000, she said.
Latinos working together in NEPA have about 75 members throughout northeastern Pennsylvania, said Francisco Gonzalez, who owns Franchesca General Services across from Angelo’s Pizza and serves as the new organization’s president.
He said the organization is like a “chamber for Hispanics” to provide information and support. He has submitted documents to register the organization.
“Our main goal is to get a building where we could have offices and rooms to educate people, to explain to them the importance of becoming a US citizen and to offer English classes,” said Gonzalez, who moved to New York from the Dominican Republic is a city in northeastern Pennsylvania.
His office has become a place for Hispanic and Latino business owners and residents to get information on how to become US citizens and where to obtain passports.
Our main street
The growing Latino community can be seen on Hazle Street, which is packed with Hispanic shops. Copies of the newspaper “La Voz Latina” in Spanish are in a box on the sidewalk.
Perdomo said Hazle Street has become a popular spot for Hispanic shops, comparing it to Miami’s Calle Ocho, which is known for its Cuban restaurants, bakeries and street fairs.
When people come to Hazle Street they can see five Hispanic restaurants, two Hispanic barber shops and three Hispanic tire shops.
“Hazle Street has become like Main Street for us,” Perdomo said.
Originally from the Dominican Republic, Edward Abreu now owns the Toque de Sazon restaurant at 434 Hazle Street. He said the organization is “important for everyone and for the community.”
He commended Gonzalez for his efforts to “bring everyone together.”
“I looked around the area and liked it. It’s convenient for everything,” Abreu said. “My brother, my sister, my uncle and everyone comes here and invests too.”
Wilkes-Barre Mayor George Brown previously met with Hispanic business owners at the Casa Blanca Restaurant Bar & Grill and plans to meet with members again in December. Code enforcement officials will be present at the meeting to provide information to Latino residents who want to start businesses, Brown said.
Of the 36 new companies set to form in Wilkes-Barre this year, about a third are minority-owned companies, according to Brown.
More than $413,300 has been awarded to new businesses through the Spark Wilkes-Barre grant program, which helps new business owners pay up to $10,000 in rent in their first year, the mayor said. The grant scheme is designed to facilitate business growth in the city and will also be discussed at the meeting, he said.
“There is money available to help them get started,” Brown said. “I’m very proud that minorities benefit, but some don’t. We are working on that together.”
Brown has the same goal as Gonzalez, “to ensure that we provide information to the Latino community to ensure they are successful in their business ventures.”
“There is power in numbers. There is strength in our coming together,” Brown said. “The partnership we’re putting together includes the mayor’s office, Latin American business owners and the community working together to create an organization that will be a big part of the city of Wilkes-Barre.”
US Census figures show that about 26.6% of Wilkes-Barre’s total US Census population of approximately 44,453 residents is Hispanic or Latino.
“There’s a very large Latino population,” Brown said. “We have people coming in from Hazleton and outside the area because they see opportunities. There are opportunities that they might not have in another city.”
Greater Wyoming Valley of Commerce senior director of operations Everal “Ben” Eaton applauded Latinos working together in NEPA and any organization “whose desire is to improve our region and provide resources to reach all areas of our community.”
“Our region is at its best when we help each other grow and thrive,” said Eaton. “We look forward to every opportunity to partner with Latinos Working Together in NEPA as we work toward our mission to accelerate the region’s economic engine by fostering innovation, connecting our resources, and nurturing and advocating for our community. “
The Greater Wyoming Valley Chamber sees a greater need for resources and support for Hispanic businesses given the growth in Luzerne County’s Hispanic population and the challenges posed by the pandemic, Eaton said.
In 2019, the chamber board established advocacy and diversity as part of its strategic plan, and in 2020 the chamber launched its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council.
The Chamber has launched several initiatives to support the diverse communities that make up the Wyoming Valley. The chamber recently received a $154,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to expand the offerings of the chamber’s Connect program and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council to a new program called “Connect Inclusive,” he said.
“The program provides resources specifically for minority-owned companies in the form of mentoring cohorts, a supply chain program and other resources with our partners through the grant at Wilkes University and Institute’s Small Business Development Center,” said Eaton.