Hispanics lead West Michigan into demographic makeup shift

March 25, 2011
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When Alternative Mechanical owner Dick Ortega graduated from Godwin Heights High School in 1970, he recalled, he was one of about a half-dozen Hispanic students in his graduating class.

Today, 41 percent of the student population is Hispanic, Godwin Heights Superintendent Jon Felske said.

“When you put Hispanic and black or African-American together, its 61 percent,” Felske said. “The district has totally flipped demographically in 21 years.”

Godwin Heights Public Schools in Wyoming is just one example of the demographic changes in West Michigan over the past two decades.

The U.S. Census Bureau last week released Census 2010 results for total population, racial and ethnic breakdowns and housing occupancy and vacancies for Michigan, from the state all the way down to the census tract level. The information was provided to state leaders for redrawing political boundaries, but it provides the first glimpse of local results. The bureau will release additional details in the coming months.

Like Census 2000, Census 2010 revealed that minority populations are growing throughout Kent County, primarily in Grand Rapids’ southern suburbs: Kentwood and Wyoming. In fact, those two cities rank as Kent County’s most diverse locales under a measure known as the Meyer Diversity Index used by USA Today.

With Census 2010, Gaines Charter Township, just south of Kentwood, is emerging as a destination for Asians, blacks and Hispanics. Hispanics are considered an ethnicity and may be of any race.

“Nothing like that has been on our radar screen, nor should it,” Gaines Supervisor Don Hilton said. “I don’t see any reason for us to have that kind of discussion. We try to be welcoming to all.”

Overall in Kent County, while the numbers and proportions of Asians and Hispanics increases, the black population remained stagnant and the number of non-Hispanic whites continued to shrink.

Census 2010 showed that while population in the city of Grand Rapids shrank by 4.9 percent, to 188,010, the number of Hispanics grew by 19 percent, to 29,261, since 2000 and 2010. Hispanics now are 16 percent of Grand Rapids’ population, up from 13 percent in 2000.

Since 1990, the number of Hispanics in the city has more than tripled and the number of Asians has increased by 64.6 percent. At the same time, the number of blacks has increased by 10.4 percent and non-Hispanic whites have declined by 21.7 percent.

Mayor George Heartwell has spent most of his life in Grand Rapids.

“I know the city today is a very different city than the city I grew up in,” Heartwell said. “It’s a much more diverse community; therefore, it’s a much richer community in the sense of the social fabric.”

He cited a study funded by the Dyer-Ives Foundation in the mid-2000s that showed that immigrants are more likely to buy a home, start a business and participate in community organizations.

“So, far from being a burden on the community, immigrants tend to add to its economic activity, to the vitality of its neighborhoods,” Heartwell said.

Kent County ranks second in Michigan in the number of Hispanic residents at 58,437, behind only the state’s most populous Wayne County, with 95,260. But the rate of growth in Grand Rapids’ Hispanic population has slowed: From 1990 to 2000, the number nearly tripled, going from 9,394 to 25,814.

Dante Villarreal, regional director for the Michigan Small Business Technology and Development Center, said he thinks that recession and layoffs deterred immigration from Mexico during the first decade of the 20th century. About half of Hispanics in the city are Mexican immigrants, Census Bureau data shows.

“We recall in the 1990s, there was a huge boom for everyone, and then came Sept. 11, which really hurt a lot of the West Michigan industries, such as office furniture and automotive,” he said.

So while other metropolitan areas continued to draw Hispanics at a fast pace, immigration and population growth slowed in West Michigan, he said. Still, U.S. Census Bureau survey statistics released late last year showed strong growth in the number of minority-owned businesses in Kent County.

“Immigrant communities generally tend to be very entrepreneurial, with the Hispanic community being no exception,” Villareal said. “Not only in the typical Mexican restaurant or grocery store, also what we’ve seen is a huge growth in the service sector: attorneys, accountants, architects, builders.”

Attorney Raquel Salas launched Avanti Law Group last year. With nine lawyers — all but one bilingual — the firm works with many small businesses, as well as individuals, Salas said.

“We speak Spanish and we are a full-service firm, where they can find everything they need,” said Salas, who is from the Dominican Republic. “About 65 to 70 percent of our client base is Hispanic, and every day it just continues growing. Most feel more comfortable to get the help they need in their own language, even though a lot of them speak English.”

Insurance and finance company State Farm has embraced the changing demographic scene for many years, said Jim Foerster, agency field executive in Grand Rapids. It was cited by Hispanic Business magazine for its diversity work.

“The two focuses of State Farm in general is the Hispanic market and the young adult market. They are growing areas of the population,” Foerster said. “I would guess over the last six or seven years, we’ve given close to $50,000 in grant money” to local Hispanic organizations, he said.

Foerster said the company has been a strong supporter of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, conducts Spanish-language financial skills courses at United Church Outreach Ministries, and, more recently, is involved with Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities.

He said State Farm is planning to open two new offices in Hispanic neighborhoods in Kent and Ottawa counties this year. 

“A significant number of our offices have bilingual team members,” Foerster added. “We now have eight agents, and I would guess six of them have bilingual team members.”

Ortega said the Hispanic chamber, of which he is chair, counts as members both Hispanic-owned business and businesses that want to reach the Hispanic market. He knows it was not always so, and said his late father, Leonard, a native of Mexico, faced discrimination when he brought his family to Grand Rapids in 1952 after earning a degree in Colorado.

Godwin Heights is one of five public school districts in the suburb of Wyoming, where Hispanics make up 19 percent of the 72,125 residents, up from 9.7 percent in 2000.

Felske arrived nine years ago to lead Wyoming Public Schools and now is at the helm of both districts. He said he sees changes in the Family Fare grocery store where items are labeled in Spanish and English, where “help wanted” signs request bilingual skills.

“Diversity is no longer how many black students you have. It’s the large explosion of Hispanic students,” said Felske, who was in negotiations last week to become the head of Muskegon Public Schools.

“I go in the (high school) cafeteria and see all kinds of kids sitting together, or kids coming to events holding hands who are dating, and they are interrace, mixed, and it’s a norm. In the past, there was a point where people would look twice. Today, it’s almost like, ‘Hey, we’re just kids.’”

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