Minority-owned business copes with changing demographics
UTICA — When Myra Fernandez and her husband Manny Cotrich moved to Utica from the South Bronx in 1990, they noticed there wasn’t any place to buy Latin music like salsa, merengue or bachata — so they decided to sell it.

But soon after opening their music store, El Coqui Music World, in 2000, Oneida County’s Hispanic population, which the couple had witnessed grow, began to decline — and so did the Mohawk Street business’s customer base.

“A lot of Spanish people, our clientele, left the area,” Fernandez said. “The customers I did have are leaving.”

The number of people of Hispanic origin in Oneida County grew about 30 percent — 1,741 people — from 1990, according to Census 2000 figures.

Three years later, however, that increase is hard to find, as is the funding needed to stabilize the couple’s business. Issues with establishing a customer base or funding usually make it difficult for minorities — or anyone, for that matter — to break into and maintain a successful business, experts say.

“Certainly minorities face the same problems (as anyone else) but they may face additional problems like reception or reluctance from a financial institution to finance them,” said Dave Mallen, executive director of the Small Business Development Center at the SUNY Institute of Technology at Utica/Rome campus.

Fernandez said she initially received money from the city of Utica when starting El Coqui, but when she wasn’t able to hire additional employees three years later, the funding for which she was eligible ended.

Augustus Stovall II is the owner of BiG (Believer in God) Clothing in Rome. The minister currently uses a section of his father’s church, First Tabernacle Pentecostal Christian Center, to market his clothing.

Securing monies to get his business off the ground and into a storefront has been hard, Stovall said.

“Financing is the (difficulty) right now, trying to get a loan,” Stovall said. “I have the clientele, but that one, very important detail is financing. I’ve been financing the business myself, and going to different banks. That’s where it’s tough. Operating on my own finances.”

Despite the hardships, minorities are nationally cementing a place in the market as business owners.

The number of black-owned businesses increased 25 percent between 1992 and 1997, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Last year, 20 percent, or one in five woman-owned firms in the United States, was owned by a woman of color, according to the National Black Business Trade Association.

Establishing a business, however, and staying in business are two different endeavors, some say.

Fernandez works at the United Way during the day, her husband at the Utica Transit Authority, before coming to El Coqui in the afternoons. She’s considering doing away with her storefront, and running her business solely through her Web site, www.coquimusic.com.

The online sales net about 70 percent more than the store, Fernandez said, and are from as far away as Germany.

“I do online sales around the clock. It’s hard for me (to decide) because the Web site is going so fast, it’s pulling me that way,” Fernandez said.

But whether the decision is to run both businesses or divert to online solely, Fernandez, and all business owners, should have a carefully detailed business plan that comes across realistically to financial institutions, experts say.

“It always does come down to the viability of a plan and the whole package,” Mallen said. “(It’s) the ability of an entrepreneur, in the eyes of the financing institution, to make it work ... whether the individual has what it takes. (It’s) the perceived success of their business plan.”

This article features one of the clients of the Utica SBDC.

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