How Immigrants are Positively Impacting Local Economies

When Flora Barron immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with her husband and young daughter about 30 years ago, she had a dream to launch her own business in the U.S. someday.


“I remember seeing American Express commercials on TV, promoting business credit cards, and thinking: That’s my dream, to run a small business,” Barron says. “But it took my family about two decades before we finally decided to venture into our first food business in Fort Wayne.”


Kanela offers an assortment of hand-crafted smoothies, juices, and coffees with breakfast, lunch and dessert items from local bakers. Today, Barron is the proud owner of several local food businesses in the city, starting with Flora & Lily’s Mexican Kitchen food truck and ranging to the Kanela Smoothies and Juice mobile unit, Kanela cafe on The Landing, a Kanela II drive-thru in New Haven, and Pikoso Burrito Co. inside Union Street Market at Electric Works. But she and her family had to navigate a myriad of obstacles, including language barriers, a lack of local connections, and the intricacies of starting and running a business in a foreign land to make it happen.


Now, her daughter, who is grown and married to Johnny Perez of Mercado on the Landing and Te Gusto Hospitality, is bringing innovative dining concepts to the city, too.


Their story speaks to what Micaela McConnell, state and local senior policy associate at the American Immigration Council, calls a “growing trend” — not just in Fort Wayne, but across the U.S. — of immigrants driving growth, investment and cultural uniqueness in cities in many ways.


“Something we’ve seen trending across not only the country — and especially in Fort Wayne — is that immigrants are more likely to be entrepreneurs and business owners than their U.S.-born counterparts, which creates jobs and spurs local economies,” McConnell says.


The data goes back to the Council’s recently updated Gateways for Growth (G4G) Challenge in partnership with Allen County organizations and Welcoming America. It includes tailored research on the county’s immigrant population in both 2017 and 2023, showing in the most recent report that immigrants make only 6.8 percent of the county’s total population, yet account for roughly 9.9 percent of its business owners, generating a combined $37.9 million in income. This makes immigrants roughly 28.9 percent more likely to be entrepreneurs than their U.S.-born counterparts in Allen County.


On top of that, the report, generated from 2019 U.S. census data, shows immigrants also punch above their weight class in Allen County’s workforce and growth.


“Despite making up 6.8 percent of the county’s total population in 2019, immigrants represented 8.8 percent of its working-age population, 7.8 percent of its employed labor force, and 5.4 percent of its science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workers,” the 2023 report says.


And: “Between 2014 and 2019, the population of Allen County increased by 3.3 percent while the immigrant population grew by 12.6 percent.”


These statistics are a few of many reasons driving Allen County leaders to engage in a yearlong process of developing a Welcoming Plan for the City of Fort Wayne and/or Allen County to adopt, using data collected by the G4G Challenge to develop more comprehensive strategies to support immigrants, like Barron, in becoming residents, entrepreneurs, leaders, and engaged local citizens of all types.


Starting in 2017, Allen County leaders at Welcoming Fort Wayne, Associated Churches and the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership applied for and were selected as one of only 10 communities nationwide to receive a study (now known as G4G) conducted by the New American Economy and Welcoming America.


Over the next several years, local leaders continued to build momentum around the initial findings, and in 2022, a new coalition led by Amani Family ServicesDowntown Fort Wayne, and Greater Fort Wayne (GFW) Inc. reapplied to update the data post-pandemic, this time with a mission to engage local immigrants in the process and create a Welcoming Plan for city and/or county-level adoption.


“Fort Wayne is a really great example of what we hope communities can accomplish through the G4G Challenge,” McConnell says. “Fort Wayne received a research brief in 2017 and has continued to build upon those conversations to now engage the community in the development of a multi-sector welcoming plan. The updated research brief released this September can help support these efforts to forge a plan that makes a real impact and doesn’t just live on a shelf.”


Since July, about 24 Allen County stakeholder organizations have been attending monthly steering committee meetings at Foellinger Foundation as part of a year-long local effort to determine how the G4G research will be applied to make Allen County more welcoming and inclusive. The meetings are focused on four key topics: Education, Economic Development, Civic Engagement and Connected Communities.


As part of the process, Amani, GFW Inc. and Downtown commissioned a third study this summer, this time a Fort Wayne Community Input survey, to engage foreign- and U.S.-born residents directly in the process. The survey was conducted by Andrew Downs Consulting, LLC, and in many ways, it confirms the G4G Challenge’s findings from census data. For example, whereas roughly one-fifth of local U.S.-born respondents said they aspired to be entrepreneurs, that percentage jumped to 58.77 percent for foreign-born respondents.


“In the Community Input survey, we realized we not only have immigrants who already are entrepreneurs, but many who aspire to entrepreneurship or small business ownership, so how do we develop that passion, and what mentorship or leadership do we need to put into place to support them?” says Amani’s Director of Mission Advancement Keiara Carr. “Those are the types of questions we’re talking about in our steering committees, as we’re thinking about developing a Welcoming Plan and local policies that might help.”


As former director of the Road to One Million for the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, Michael Galbraith has been involved in the G4G Challenge from day one in 2017, initially around his task of helping the region reach one million residents by the year 2030. Since the most recent  G4G report found that immigrants made up nearly a quarter of Allen County’s total population growth from 2014 and 2019, they play an important role in reaching this goal.


“I’m a numbers guy,” Galbraith says. “And when you see the numbers, you start to think: We better figure out how to be a welcoming, place of choice for immigrants because they are driving our population growth in Allen County and Northeast Indiana, as a whole.”


Now, as President and CEO of Downtown Fort Wayne, Galbraith says he feels strongly that Downtown needs to keep supporting the G4G Challenge, not only to foster growth but also to reduce barriers to immigrants developing unique small businesses in and around Downtown, which make Fort Wayne a destination for residents and visitors alike.


“One of the things we’re trying to figure out as Downtown is: How do we deal with the changing retail environment and create a unique place that encourages people to come out and have experiences in person?” Galbraith says. “More immigrant and refugee-owned businesses answer both of those questions.”


Because local leaders, like Galbraith, are still developing a Welcoming Plan, Carr says it’s too early to enumerate the ways data from G4G might be applied locally, but addressing gaps in language access and connectedness are two key issues that are top of mind.


For example, in the Community Input survey, more than twice as many foreign-born residents say they face challenges to maintaining employment, and most identify the “language spoken and used at work” as their top challenge (17.12 percent), followed by legal status (14.21 percent).


In September, Mayor Tom Henry’s Administration announced plans to update its Limited English Proficiency (LEP) policy, which works with local and national providers to increase access to translation and interpretation services. Carr believes this is in good alignment with the G4G Challenge’s work, and the Welcoming Plan might build on its progress.


Another early insight from the Community Input survey is the fact that only 123 of 781 total survey respondents were foreign-born citizens. While this percentage (15.7 percent) is still higher than the percentage of foreign- to U.S.-born residents locally (9.2 percent), it also reveals ongoing challenges in reaching and engaging immigrants in civic life — even data collection.


“Even with our steering committees, it’s difficult to attend those if you’re working a full-time job that doesn’t allow you to take time off, or if you face language barriers, so what can we do to make things more accessible?” Carr asks.


Addressing sometimes uncomfortable questions about inclusivity is part of the reason Ellen Cutter at Greater Fort Wayne Inc. calls the G4G Challenge one of the most meaningful experiences she’s had during her tenure with the chamber of commerce since 2016.


“This is work that, as we’ve gone along in the process, we’ve learned a lot from each other in terms of what’s going well and things we simply don’t know whether they’re occurring or not and how well,” Cutter says. “The quality of the conversations and the humility in saying: ‘I’m really not sure,’ has been powerful. It feels like we’re building shared knowledge, acknowledging gaps, and finding additional partners that can be engaged in this work as we develop a plan and move toward implementation.”


At a recent steering committee meeting in mid-October, Cutter and others went through questions provided by Welcoming America to begin applying to be Certified Welcoming community, which will be one outcome of the G4G Challenge, in addition to the aforementioned Welcoming Plan.


Amani, GFW Inc. and Downtown will eventually seek buy-in from the city and/or county, which is required to achieve this certification.

Lola Pak, Communications Director for Welcoming America, says so far, the organization has awarded about 19 Certified Welcoming communities across the U.S., and Fort Wayne would be the first city in Indiana to achieve the designation.


“What we hear from places that have become Certified Welcoming is that it creates and fosters relationships among entities both within local governments and the community because the process of becoming certified necessitates organizations to work with local law enforcement, education and healthcare providers,” Pak says. “So the program really is a way for communities to become more transparent and accountable about their welcoming efforts.”


In other cities, she says certifications have inspired city or county governments to institutionalize immigrant programs and initiatives with more comprehensive, long-term vision, rather than one-off efforts that shift from administration to administration.


“Once you become Certified Welcoming, you have to renew your certification every four years, depending on the government level, so it requires you to maintain certain criteria – or do more and advance your certification,” Pak says.


There are five-star designations of Certified Welcoming cities, and Fort Wayne’s steering committee has determined it will apply for a three-star certification to begin. Carr says the committee is looking to other certified cities, like Dayton, Ohio, and Grand Rapids, Mich., as examples, too.


“We had the Welcoming Dayton team join us for a steering committee session earlier this year,” Carr says. “Dayton was one of the first cities to become Certified Welcoming, so we’ve been using them as a model of what can be done in Fort Wayne. Because of the G4G Challenge, we have access to a wealth of cities across the U.S. that have already done this work, so we’re not starting from scratch in achieving an effective Welcoming Plan and become Certified Welcoming.”


Pak says the upfront cost to achieve a certification ranges from $9,000-$12,000, depending on the star level, and cities seeking a 1-star designation have their fees waived. Discounts are also available for Welcoming Network members.


To immigrant entrepreneurs like Barron who have had to navigate challenges without much guidance in the past, this fee is a small price to pay for unleashing the creative and economic potential of immigrants in Fort Wayne.


“By achieving the status of a Welcoming City, we can consolidate various resources and existing organizations into a centralized hub, making it easier for anyone, particularly immigrants, to access the support and services they need,” she says. “Furthermore, with a well-structured Welcoming Plan in place, we can effectively guide immigrants toward becoming productive members of our society. This not only fosters a sense of belonging and community but also ultimately leads to immigrants contributing positively to our local economy, as they become taxpayers and active participants in our city’s growth and prosperity.”


In addition to a Welcoming certification and plan, GFW Inc. sees the G4G Challenge supporting its comprehensive Allen County Together Plan, which launched in January and seeks to advance three community pillars during the next 10 years: Growth, innovation and inclusivity.


“In terms of inclusivity, the plan looks at a lot of mechanisms to support entrepreneurship and small business growth, making sure Fort Wayne and Allen County are desirable places for diverse talent and making sure we’re onboarding and welcoming all of the people who are moving to the community,” Cutter says. “So there are several connection points.”


Ultimately, it’s about ensuring that all members of Allen County have the opportunity to fully participate in and benefit from the region’s economic growth.


“So many organizations are looking ahead to 2024 and developing plans, budgets and priorities right now,” Cutter says. “Along with the bigger plans and initiatives, I think many of us on the steering committee have found practical things our organizations can do to be more welcoming of immigrants in our community. That’s what this process is really all about.”


This feature is by Kara Hackett. This story is made possible by support from Downtown Fort Wayne in partnership with Input Fort Wayne.