Western Colorado Latino Chamber of Commerce open for business | PostIndependent.com

Western Colorado Latino Chamber of Commerce open for business

Sharon Sullivan
ssullivan@gjfreepress.com

Sharon Sullivan / Free Press

The new Western Colorado Latino Chamber of Commerce is open to anyone — individuals and businesses, Hispanics and non-Hispanics.

Founder and director Rich Lopez said he envisions the new chamber as a bridge between cultures.

Hispanic chambers already exist in Denver, Pueblo and Greeley, where Lopez lived until two years ago when he and his wife relocated to Grand Junction. He said he immediately saw a need for one on the Western Slope as well.

"I didn't see a Latino 'voice' in the area," Lopez said.

"A chamber of commerce can be that voice, and is (also) a perfect opportunity for non-Hispanic businesses to reach the Latino market. It's a perfect bridge."

The Latino chamber's board of directors includes male and female, Latinos and non-Latinos, and even two residents originally from Ireland, Lopez said.

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Greg Lopez (no relation to Rich), Colorado director of the Small Business Administration, spoke at a kick-off event three weeks ago at La Bamba Restaurant, 546 Main St. Greg Lopez grew up in a family of migrant workers, served in the U.S. Air Force, and at age 27, became the youngest Colorado mayor and the youngest mayor ever of Parker, Colo.

Rich Lopez said the response to the Latino chamber has been great, and already there are 25 members.

Lopez is organizing a Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15-Oct. 15, in collaboration with Mesa County Libraries and Colorado Mesa University. He hopes to have a "mercado" at the event, traditional dancers in costume, a movie showing of "Bless Me, Ultima" — a film based on the book by Mexican-American author Rudolfo Anaya, plus speakers.

Another project Lopez foresees is a Hispanic style plaza (think Santa Fe), where businesses are built around a mini-park area.

The Latino chamber has traded memberships with the Palisade and Fruita chambers, and wants to work with the Grand Junction Area Chamber as well, he said.

Fruita chamber director Shauna Davies said she attended one of the new chamber's board meetings and was impressed with its members, the goals that have been set, and how well-run the meeting was.

"They have wonderful board members. They're just a terrific group," she said.

Davies added that the two chambers will collaborate and help each other.

"The more we can help each other, it will be in our favor," she said.

Grand Junction chamber president Diane Schwenke offered administrative support and office space for the new chamber if it would come under its umbrella, but Lopez said he declined.

"On the surface, it was a great opportunity to start," Lopez said. However, "our membership dues would go to them so it would take longer for us to stand on our own two feet. So we did not accept her offer to be part of the Grand Junction chamber."

Unlike the Grand Junction chamber, the Latino chamber will not take political stands on issues. The Grand Junction chamber has come under fire recently for establishing a political arm of its organization, a 501(c)(4) that allows the nonprofit to support candidates and issues with money from anonymous donors.

"We don't endorse candidates or any party," Lopez said.

"It doesn't mean we won't at some point have a forum on certain issues where both sides will participate."

"Our main focus now is to increase membership," he said. "We'll start with a business after-hours event in the next 30 days," he said.

The Latino chamber's next meeting is 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 30, at La Bamba restaurant. All are welcome, Lopez said.

Lopez opened his own printing business in 1959, first in Denver, later in Greeley.

On the Front Range he served on the United Way board of directors, the Greeley Dream Team, and Meals on Wheels. He formed the Greeley Group, a monthly luncheon platform where residents could present issues.

Lopez also started an annual softball game between the Greeley police and firemen. The event was dubbed "Guns and Hoses."

"It was very successful; the community loved it," Lopez said, suggesting there could also be an annual softball game between the Grand Valley's various chambers' members.

Lopez, 73, said he wasn't planning to become so active in Grand Junction, but that he saw a need and the response was strong.

"All I've done is open the door," he said.

The Western Colorado Latino Chamber of Commerce can be reached at 970-324-0216, or e-mail: info@wclatinochamber.org.