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Just seven years after going into business selling pinto beans at farmers markets, Jorge Fierro now has 30 people working for him at Rico Mexican Market & Catering.

Because Fierro and his company are so representative of Salt Lake City's emerging Latino population and business sector, his restaurant and catering service at 554 W. 700 South served as a selling point last weekend in efforts to convince the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to bring its 2009 national convention to Utah.

"It was a great honor," said Fierro after being asked by officials from the Utah Hispanic Chamber and the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau to serve a luncheon for two meeting planners from the national chamber. "Obviously, they wanted to impress [the visitors] that the Latino community here is quite diverse and large. And they knew we could put up a great menu and impress them."

Fierro and Utah's delegation should know by Aug. 29 whether they persuaded the U.S. Hispanic Chamber to select Salt Lake City over Denver and Albuquerque for the four-day convention and its projected 6,000 participants. This year's convention is Sept. 20-23 in Philadelphia.

"September is generally an in-demand time of year for conventions," said Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau sales manager Ellen Birrell. "While this particular convention is not one of the largest we might garner in that time frame, it has long-term significance for our community . . . and would help portray our area as the diverse and welcoming community it truly is," she said.

This notion of Salt Lake City being an emerging Latino marketplace is one reason the Utah Hispanic Chamber chose to highlight Fierro at a luncheon and to take meeting planners through the Rose Park and Glendale neighborhoods with a high concentration of Latino businesses, said Carlos Linares, the local chamber's executive director.

"One of the planners was quite familiar with Salt Lake City and the other person had no idea there was that much diversity in the state," said Linares. "That was good. We wanted them to see the city as a potential place to do business.

"Having this [national] conference in Salt Lake would dispel some of the myths that Salt Lake isn't a city that's diverse," he added. "Having the [2002] Olympics here quieted some of that noise, but this convention would let people know how our Latino market is growing. Our population is [one of the] fastest-growing in the country."

First-hand experience with Salt Lake City also could help to put Utah's capital on an equal footing with Los Angeles, New York and Chicago in the minds of national and international investors, added Utah Hispanic Chamber board chairman Joe Reyna.

"That would help increase the attention we get from national companies," he said. "We have many Latino commercial builders that bid for big contracts and we also have marketing firms that could get national accounts. . . . It would be good to get Fortune 500 companies to spend advertising dollars in the state of Utah instead of just Los Angeles, Miami and San Antonio."

Although the U.S. Hispanic Chamber originated in New Mexico, Reyna thinks Denver is the tougher of Salt Lake's two remaining competitors. Denver has new convention facilities, while Colorado has an estimated 790,000 Latinos (to about 300,000 in Utah) and 20,000 Latino-owned businesses (to 5,800 in Utah).

"We're not as big as Colorado or California or Texas," said Reyna, "but we're an emerging market and we're growing faster than the others. We have more opportunities for creating economic benefits."