Hispanic Chamber expands

STOCKTON -- It has new programs focused on educating business owners. It has more members than ever before.

And it has a new name: Central Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"The difference before is we really weren't as active," said Patrick Rabelo, current board member and past president of the chamber. "A few years ago, the organization was struggling to survive. We had to focus on reviving the membership."

The business group is formerly known as the South San Joaquín Hispanic Chamber of Commerce -- not affiliated with San Joaquín Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

It was formed 11 years ago, not to compete with the other Hispanic chamber, but to concentrate on servicing the south county, said Michael Reichgut, first vice president of the organization.

But over the last decade, the chamber had a tough climb to stability with more and more members dropping out of the group.

Nevertheless, Rabelo, a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty, and Reichgut, a web designer with Solutions IC, came onboard in 2008, eight years after the chamber was started.

"Maybe people felt it was stagnant. Maybe there were disagreements. Maybe different agendas. I don't know," Rabelo said.

What Rabelo and Reichgut did know is that the chamber had potential to grow and be established as a vital part of the community.

"We asked ourselves what is the reason that Hispanic businesses are not as connected to the mainstream business community as they could be," Rabelo said.

The small group of only a few members, including Rabelo and Reichgut, began recruiting other merchants throughout the area as their first order of business.

And when the Stanislaus Hispanic Chamber of Commerce dissolved recently, Reichgut said, "That was another reason we said we need to move forward and serve that population."

So, the chamber carved a new identity, expanding its reach beyond south San Joaquín. It now welcomes members from the entire county and from Stanislaus County.

"So that was part of the reason we changed the name to show the geographic area that we are serving," Reichgut said.

Over the past three years, the chamber has grown to more than 100 members. That's about a 100 percent increase from three years ago, and a 50 percent increase from last year.

Once membership was in place, the next step for the chamber was to focus economic development and on creating programs useful to their member base.

The chamber began to take stances on proposed legislative changes that could affect economic development.

"For the longest time we were hesitant to get politically involved," Rabelo said. "Now are....if something that hinders economic development ... we do have a legislative committee."

In addition, the chamber now offers micro-lending through a partnership with the Fresno Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The loans are for business owners who meets the Small Business Administration's criteria, but wouldn't necessarily quality for a traditional bank loan.

"It's a fabulous way of working together," Reichgut said.

The board also surveyed members to learn what their priorities are. Offerings college scholarships is one of its programs that came from those conversations.

Another initiative that came from the discussions is its English-as-a-second-language (ESL) education component for its Spanish-speaking clients who wanted to learn to communicate better in English.

The program is in line with the chamber's goal for its Latino membership to interact more and network with the business community at-large.

Its emphasis on education also exposes businesses to workshops on various topics, such as the state's Enterprise Zone, which aims to stimulate job growth and business development in depressed areas throughout California's cities.

One of the things the revitalized chamber wanted to implement was embracing a family-type atmosphere. An ambassadors committee was put in place to welcome new members.

"As newcomer sometimes people make you feel as an outsider," Rabelo said. "At our mixers they usually really enjoy the warm feeling. To not have clicks. That's the way we want our mixers to feel."

The chamber holds mixers every second Wednesday from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at a different member's business every time.

Membership starts at $60, and goes up depending on the size of the company. For details visit:

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