The underlying motive behind the entire loan controversy, Ms. Correa and others maintain, was the growing power of Hispanics in the local economy. Odessa, a city of 90,000 located at the western base of the Texas panhandle, saw its Hispanic populace grow by more than 10,000 between 1990 and 2000, according to Census data. As a result, the Hispanic proportion of the city’s population shifted from 31.1 percent to 41.4 percent.
For a Hispanic community intent on wielding its new-found economic and political power, the MANO loan program became a flash-point issue. Several city council members sought to dispel the threat by questioning the need for a local Hispanic chamber. “We only need one chamber to work for the whole community,” council member Brandon Tate told the Odessa American last August. “We don’t need to be divided into separate entities.”
Added council member Jim Morris: “We only have one city. Why don’t we have one chamber?”
“It is impossible for general chambers of commerce to meet market demands they have ignored for years,” answers Ms. Correa. “MANO was not chartered to compete with other organizations; MANO was chartered to fill a void that had existed for years.”
MANO represents a model Hispanic chamber in part because other Hispanic chambers will soon confront the same situation, according to Ricardo Calderon, chairman of the Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce (TAMACC). “There is friction among nonminority community members as their communities grow more Latino,” Mr. Calderon says. “I have consistently advocated that all communities benefit tremendously from having a Hispanic chamber of commerce, in addition to their regular chamber and economic development agencies. By having a Hispanic chamber, each community is represented in many more venues and forums than if they did not have a Hispanic chamber. … Having different chambers doesn’t dilute their strength, it only increases it.”
MANO also finds itself on the cutting edge because it has moved into new areas of economic empowerment. It offers certification assistance for Small Disadvantaged Businesses, 8(a) companies, and federal HUB Zone businesses. Mr. Calderon credits MANO as the first Hispanic chamber in the nation certified as a community development bank. Ms. Correa adds that MANO is the only Hispanic organization in the history of Odessa to receive city funding, and the amount – $60,000 for MANO, compared with $1 million per year for the mainstream chamber of commerce – reveals yet another battle against discrimination (see accompanying article, “Natural-Born Organizer.”)
For Ms. Correa, the solution in Odessa has a tinge of poetic justice. It appeared a stalemate, with MANO and a 3–2 majority of the city council fighting for control of the loan program. But in the May 2002 elections, Mr. Morris lost his re-election bid. “The country-club crowd is what we were up against,” Ms. Correa says. “The woman vote and the Hispanic vote defeated him.”
Cathy Herzog, the new council member, immediately pushed for reconciliation. “That changed the mentality of the council,” says Mr. Rodriguez. “That one person not getting re-elected was the difference.”
In the final settlement of the loan conflict, the City of Odessa will give the loan program back to MANO. In return, MANO will prepare an annual report on the program’s performance. The Odessa City Council approved the agreement unanimously.
Mr. Sambrano hopes to organize a “healing meeting” where all parties can participate in bringing the community together. But in other communities, the battle has barely started. Mr. Calderon notes that other Hispanic chambers plan to venture beyond their traditional roles into such areas as community development banking and affordable housing, and new tensions will loom. “If not for the extraordinary mediation by the Department of Justice, every Hispanic chamber in the country would have been subjected to the same kind of opposition [as MANO] from nonminority communities,” he says.
Ms. Correa agrees, pointing out the demographic shift that underpins the trend. “With the continued growth of the Hispanic population and the aggressive approach that is necessary to meet the demands of the underserved market, more resistance will evolve throughout different parts of the country,” she predicts. “Our experience will serve as an example for other communities whose leaders are of the opinion that there is no need for a Hispanic chamber.”
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