A Changing Landscape as Immigrants Transform Main Streets

Allie Shah, StarTribune Local, July 21, 2012

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The change from a barber shop to a henna and perfume parlor is a sign of how new immigrants are transforming business districts outstate just as they have along some main streets in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Drawn to Willmar because of jobs at the Jennie-O meatpacking plants, a growing number of Somali immigrants are calling this west-central Minnesota town home and opening small businesses on the side.

The official count says 700 of Willmar’s 19,610 residents are originally from Somalia, but city officials and Somali community leaders say the real number is at least 2,000. The city’s Latino population has leveled off at 4,099 according to the latest U.S. census data.

In cities such as Rochester and Faribault, too, new immigrants have arrived, adding new flavors and customers to downtown areas.

“Main Streets in many smaller Minnesota communities have not fared so well the last 25 or 30 years,” said Bill Blazar, an executive at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “The growth of immigrant populations and the businesses that are a direct result really are a shot in the arm. They’re an economic development program.”

The changes have also created angst for some residents.

“For those who have been here a long time, it’s a lot different,” said Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s never going to be like it once was, and there’s plenty of opportunity to make it viable again.”

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In a nod to the growing Somali presence in outstate communities, a Minneapolis-based agency that offers technical support to help African immigrants run their businesses has planted flags in Willmar and Rochester.

Yusuf Ahmed heads up the Willmar branch office of the African Development Center of Minnesota, which opened downtown last September. {snip}

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Walking through the streets of Willmar earlier this week, Ahmed stopped at what is widely believed to be the first Somali-owned business in town—a corner store with a sign that reads: “Bihi’s Shop. Goat meat. Dry goods. Phone cards. Dairy.”

Outside the former paint store, two Somali men sat on a park bench beneath the grocery’s large picture window. Inside, the items sold include diapers, cereal, large bottles of sesame oil for cooking, plastic tubs full of dates and burlap sacks of basmati rice.

Right next to the store, Bihi runs a café. The bar stools and lunch counter inside the restaurant are remnants of the old Town Talk Bakery—a social hub that drew people from all over the city and surrounding towns, recalled Richard Hoglund, lifelong Willmar resident and former mayor.

After the bakery closed, he said, a new restaurant run by a Latino immigrant opened. Now, it’s the Bihi Restaurant.

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Still, the new Faribault has been an adjustment for some residents.

“For a small town in southern Minnesota, to have this type of immigrant growth, it is a cultural shock to us a little bit,” Ross said. “It’s neither good nor bad. It’s just different.”

Large groups of Somali men tend to congregate at day’s end on downtown Faribault sidewalks, speaking Somali and often not moving out of the way for others walking by. The practice has annoyed and even intimidated some people in town, said Ross, who was prompted to write about the issue last week in a mass e-mail that was republished in the local newspaper.

“That’s the way they get together and exchange information,” he said of the Somali sidewalk conventions. “They get together and they really talk. We’re not used to seeing large groups congregating in public areas like that. We have to get used to how each other operates.”

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