Researchers believe the Latino community in South Carolina wields more than $3 billion in buying power, and retailers in York County are taking notice.
Compare Foods, a Latino grocery chain, and Plaza Fiesta Carolinas, an ethnic shopping mall, both plan to open in York County this year. Officials from both companies, existing local merchants and researchers claim York County and the Carolinas are seeing the economic windfall from a booming Hispanic population.
According to the U.S. Census, about 5,500 Latinos reside in York County. But research by the USC Consortium for Latino Immigration suggests that number is only a quarter of the actual total because of the number of undocumented Latinos. That means more than 20,000 Latinos likely call York County home.
Census numbers put the state's total Latino population at around 140,000, but the number may be closer to 400,000, according to the consortium.
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Economist Doug Woodward, director of research for the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, said South Carolina's Latino population has soared in the past five years.
He said the growth is particularly prevalent in booming areas, including Rock Hill and the rest of the Charlotte metro region.
"It's a newer market, and it's a growing market," Woodward said. "Now, we're seeing growth from families. That provides opportunities for retailers and other businesses."
Woodward said many migrant workers who came to the United States in years past are now raising families here. He said that means remittances -- money sent to family members in other places -- will begin to decline and new opportunities will develop for retailers.
"Over time as Latinos acclimate to the local culture, they'll reflect that culture," Woodward said. "In other words, they'll spend all of their money here, which is something typical of Americans."
That's good news for businesses looking to cash in.
Maria Pena, vice president of Compare Foods, a North Carolina-based Hispanic grocery chain, is excited about the potential for her company's first venture in South Carolina. A new supermarket is slated to open next month at the former Winn-Dixie on Cherry Road.
She said the 53-store chain decided to open a Rock Hill location after seeing a large base of Latinos travel to the Charlotte store on Arrowood Boulevard.
"We have a lot of people coming to that store asking, 'When are you coming to South Carolina?'," Pena said, adding the Cherry Road location is a perfect fit because of the high density of Latinos in that part of town.
The company, with stores in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Florida, caters largely to Mexican and South American cultures. Pena said her family founded the business in 1987, tapping into the growing Hispanic demographic years ahead of the competition.
"It's been very successful," she said. "We saw the growth happening in the '80s when the other chains were not able to serve the diverse communities."
She expects the Rock Hill store to flourish as the only large-scale Hispanic supermarket in the area.
Jose Garcia, store manager of Las Americas, a small independent grocery store on Mount Gallant Road, said he's seen a booming customer base in the past two years. He welcomes Compare Foods because it will bring more customers to the area, he said.
"It's gonna help," Garcia said. "The economy is good. There's work, and the Spanish people are coming."
Others are apprehensive. Antonio Jimenez works at Los Puentes Mexican Grocery Store on Cherry Road across from the Compare Foods site. He said the big-box supermarket might be overkill for the Rock Hill area.
"This is a good market for a small store," he said. "I'm not sure about a big store."
While Compare competes directly with his small operation, Jimenez admits it may attract more Latino customers to the neighborhood from other parts of the county.
"They'll have to come this way," he said. "There's no big stores on the other side of town."
Plaza Fiesta Carolinas
The surging Hispanic market in the Carolinas has invigorated Fort Mill's near-dormant Crossroads Mall into what owners hope will be a popular ethnic shopping destination across the region.
Plaza Fiesta Carolinas will open in October on Carowinds Boulevard, and managing partner Arturo Adonay said its location on the Carolina border is a good place to attract thousands of Latino customers. Mainstream retailers and specialty shops are being recruited, and Adonay said leasing is already 90 percent complete.
"We foresee a great opportunity to serve Latinos and also other ethnicities that have been underserved," Adonay said.
Plaza Fiesta is a revised version of a similar mall in Atlanta that has a Latin marketplace ambiance, Adonay said. He expects the Fort Mill site to have a larger shopping mall feel, drawing customers from across the region, including from places such as Columbia, Green- ville and Raleigh, N.C.
While the national debate rages on over immigration laws, Woodward expects Latinos to continue moving into the country to take advantage of the job market.
Woodward said the availability of "immobile jobs" -- jobs that can't be outsourced to other countries, such as construction and landscaping -- will continue to draw more Latinos to growing areas like York County, which in turn opens new doors for merchants.
"They're going where the jobs are," he said. "You have to bring the labor here. They're not coming because they like the climate. It's an economic phenomenon."