Latino population growth trends are uncertain

The Hispanic population in Cabarrus County increased 153 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to recent census data.

It stands at 9.4 percent as of 2010, surpassing the state's Hispanic population numbers of 8.4 percent.

According to the Hispanic Pew Data Center, there was a spike in Cabarrus from about 6,600 Hispanic residents in 2000 to almost 15,900 in 2009.

But according to experts and local officials, the growth is dependent on the economic climate of the area.

Owen Furuseth, associate provost for metropolitan studies and professor of geography at UNC Charlotte, said Cabarrus County populations trends are indicative of the larger regional picture and even the statewide context.

In the last 30 years, the Hispanic population in the region has boomed, and the Brookings Institute ranked the Charlotte area as the fourth-fastest region for Hispanic population growth, he said.

"North Carolina has had a fairly robust economic growth," said Furuseth. "There was a tremendous need for (unskilled) workers, and demand exceeded local supply."

The job availability, along with the good quality of life in the region, attracted Hispanic immigration, he said.

"In addition to the availability of jobs, the lower cost of housing in Cabarrus County - compared to Mecklenburg - has also made places like Concord and Kannapolis attractive places for Latinos, especially those in the lower wage service and construction jobs," said Laura Simmons, a social research specialist at UNCC Urban Institute in an email.

According to Brian Hiatt, city manager of Concord, the jobs that attracted Hispanics in the first place were mainly in construction.

"Right now, that's a very stagnant industry, so I would assume we wouldn't see tremendous (population) growth over the next few years," said Hiatt. "We've actually seen some Hispanic people moving away from Concord due to the economic downturn."

Simmons said the spike in the population stopped with the recession in 2008, and the growth will remain stagnant as long as the economic recovery is slow.

"But once the recovery has really taken hold and the economy is firing on all cylinders again, I would expect the Latino population to resume rapid growth for the foreseeable future," she said.

Furuseth said the Hispanic population growth has made a positive impact on the local economy.

"It's definitely meant that the community's become more diverse so with that, there's a need for services that wasn't there before, but there are also new businesses that have resulted," he said.

He stressed the importance of welcoming Hispanic immigrants into the area.

"You have to treat newcomers - whether they be Spanish-speaking newcomers or someone from New York State - as human beings," said Furuseth. "Some of it is just good old Southern hospitality, which is what we're known for."

Concord and other towns in the region have had to make changes to accommodate the diversity, like hiring bilingual employees or translating town material, Hiatt said.

"Fifteen years ago, we would not have had rules in Spanish as well as English," he said.

Hiatt also has seen some problems result from differences of culture.

"Those kinds of problems can be handled through education, but you have to be able to communicate before you educate," he said.

Simmons said the language and communication barrier is the main challenge for Cabarrus, having worked on many community needs assessments and finding the Hispanic population is underserved when it comes to human services.

"Many of the Latinos in Cabarrus County fall at or below the poverty line and would benefit from services offered by county or nonprofit agencies, but they are often unaware of what services are available to them or how to access those services," she said. "Language is often a big part of that disconnect."