Mission: Gulf Coast Miami

It's a typical chamber of commerce meeting but for the scent of fried plantains and picadillo, a spicy Spanish dish of olives and ground beef. And then there is the occasional lilt of Spanish floating among the more than 100 attendees.

The Gulf Coast Latin Chamber of Commerce is holding its monthly evening networking event. TheIt's a relaxed, casual atmosphere, one, however, that belies the fact that the chamber is on a mission — one members hope will position them as a regional force to attract Latino business opportunities to Florida's West Coast.

"We're going to develop the whole region from Naples to Tampa," said Executive Director Cesar Gomez, 28, formerly of Colombia but now of Sarasota. Currently Miami seems to draw most of the business from Mexico, Latin and Central America and Caribbean countries, he said.

The chamber has signed a proclamation of mutual support with two other chambers, the Brazil-Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce based in Brandon and the Southwest Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Fort Myers. The chambers intend to work together to draw more business to the area.

"The entire West Coast has been neglected by businesses in Latin America and instead of trying to promote the area ourselves, we believe, working together (along) the entire West Coast, we can do a better job at it," said Leonardo Garcia, 46, executive director of the Southwest Florida chamber.

The Gulf Coast chamber has grown rapidly in the past year, from 50 to 120 members. Chamber members believe the organization bridges cultural differences. Less formal than a regular chamber, it moves at a less frenetic pace and although meetings are conducted in English, the group also enjoys a relaxed bilingualism, Gomez said.

"We are a solution for the Latins," said Gomez. "Here you can be bilingual. People are more friendly."

Manatee County Chamber of Commerce President Bob Bartz said of such specialized chambers: "I believe they all are important and address targeted missions."

In 2006, there were more than 43 million Hispanics and Latinos — 14.4 percent of the total U.S. population, according to U.S. census figures. In Manatee County, 11.8 percent of the population is Latino, in Sarasota 6.3 percent.

The numbers translate into serious economic clout.

Latino consumers will spend $863 billion this year, an 8.1 percent increase over 2006 and the first time they have outranked other minority groups in disposable personal income, according to estimates from the Selig Center at the University of Georgia. Across the Tampa Bay area, Latinos spendt $11.1 billion in 2006, Gomez said.

New arrivals from Latin America are more diverse, cultured, more educated than they were 10 years ago, said Gomez. He added that companies must try harder and use intelligent marketing to win their business, he noted.

One of the chamber's founders in 1996 was Jorge Chacon, president of Jorolco International Ventures, Inc., of Sarasota, which offers global business services like international trade consulting and market research.

In the beginning, the chamber operated on a shoestring, with only a handful of members, Chacon said. He has enjoyed seeing its growth and looks forward to yet another challenge.

"My task is to put together an alliance of chambers," he said. "To create business opportunities between the Hispanic market in the U.S. and Latin America, so our area benefits from attracting trade from Latin America, Spain and Portugal and other countries."

The chamber also attracts members outside the Hispanic community, business people who want to tap into the Latino market.

"Public TV determined the Hispanic community wanted and deserved some intellectual options," explained Michael Miner, 59, director of marketing for WEDU television, who was attending his second meeting of the chamber.

WEDU is a Tampa-based television station that recently launched a 24-hour, all-Spanish station called V-ME, which sounds similar to the phrase in Spanish that means "see me."

"We wanted to deal with them at the same level. We didn't want programs that insulted their intelligence," Miner said. "We want to attract Spanish-speaking people."

Also attending Wednesday's event was Luis Regalado, 24, who has been a member only a few months. He works in Sarasota as a branch manager and loan officer for BB&T bank. Regalado was raised in Spain and Venezuela but has been in the United States.S. six years.

"I am interested in getting into the Hispanic market in Sarasota, networking and getting to know people in different industries and businesses," he explained. Another reason he joined is to help Spanish-speaking people understand banking and build a trust relationship.

Tucker Mayer, a salesman at Gettel Nissan, which hosted the chamber's networking event, also thinks networking with the Latino business community makes sense.

"What we find is it's very important for us to help our Spanish-speaking customers feel comfortable," said Mayer. "It's not all language. It's being fair and honest with them, too."

This week's event was the first time the Sarasota car dealer had hosted such a function, said Phil Sollecito, a general manager for Gettel.

"We just wanted to let people know we'll give them great service, to get the business people to know who we are and that we would love their business," he said. "The people of this chamber are part of the business community, period. We're seeing a mix of a lot of nationalities coming into this store. The town is changing."