LAWRENCE — With $20,000 in seed money from the state, and another $20,000 from Columbia Gas, the region's first, official Hispanic chamber of commerce was launched Friday afternoon outside City Hall.
Alfredo Arias, president of the Federacion Hispana de Comerciante, along with Sonia Torbellino, owner of Little Peru, and Antonio Amable Batista, who owns of a string of supermarkets in the city, accepted an oversized check from the state of Massachusetts for $20,000 as lawmakers and supporters stood by and applauded.
Arias said business people in the city had been talking about setting up a Hispanic chamber of commerce before the Sept. 13 gas disaster but that after it hit, he and others realized how much it was needed.
"Last year, when Sept. 13 happened, businesses couldn't get information so we didn't have any power," he said before the official check-passing ceremony started. "With us, the local focus will be on Hispanic businesses in Lawrence and Methuen with a goal to expand to other cities and towns."
Franklin Miguel, the Capital Assets manager for the city of Lawrence and one of the co-founders of the new business group, said that until now, there was never a group "looking out solely for the benefit of the Hispanic business community."
When asked if the organization would become part of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce, he shook his head and said, "no, but we will work with them."
Congresswoman Lori Trahan, D-Westford, also addressed the crowd of about 40 people gathered in the broad, brick alley shared by City Hall and the Terra Luna Cafe outdoor seating area, saying that as the gas disaster dragged on, she "met many Hispanic business owners who were still struggling four months later. ... This state funding is so important so the Hispanic chamber can lift up businesses here and across the Merrimack Valley."
State Rep. Frank Moran, D-Lawrence, agreed.
"Most businesses in Lawrence are micro-businesses owned and run by Latinos so it's only fair we have a Latino chamber of commerce," he said, noting that small businesses in the city employ more than 10,000 people. "Small businesses are the engine that keeps the city running."
Miguel said after the ceremony that the $40,000 would be used to staff the new organization and do "outreach to let more businesses know we are here."