When Rosie Paulsen helped found Pasco County's first Hispanic chamber of commerce in January, the group had just a handful of members. Now it has 50.
"That right there is telling you the need is big," said Paulsen, an Ecuador-born businesswoman who runs an insurance agency in Wesley Chapel.
Paulsen's experience reflects the tremendous growth Pasco's Hispanics and racial minorities have seen in the decade since the 2000 census - growth that shows up in the county's schools, ballfields and suburban cul-de-sacs.
Recently released census figures show Pasco's minority and Hispanic populations grew dramatically between the 2000 census and last summer. The number of black and Hispanic residents tripled or nearly tripled in that time. Asian, Native American and Pacific Islander populations grew more slowly.
Pasco's new diversity came in the form of young families seeking lower housing costs during the mid-decade housing boom. Some moved into new subdivisions in formerly rural parts of Wesley Chapel and Land O' Lakes. Others put down roots in west Pasco communities built 30 years ago for retirees, many of whom are now dying.
For decades, those retirees helped make West Central Florida one of the whitest parts of the state, said demographer Stan Smith with the state's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
The most recent census estimates are as of July 1, 2009, and are the last before the 2010 census results roll out in the spring. The numbers show the populations of Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties became more diverse as they grew over the course of the last decade. While the region remains predominantly white, Hispanics and other minority groups have become a larger share of the population.
With the exception of Hillsborough County, where minorities account for a quarter of the population, the counties from Citrus to Collier continue to have the fewest minorities of any other counties in Florida.
As of last year, nonwhites made up about 9 percent of Pasco's population. Citrus County, with a 5 percent minority population, was Florida's whitest county in 2009 - a position Pasco held for much of the last decade.
Hispanics grew by about 56 percent in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties during the 2000s. By decade's end, Hispanics accounted for nearly a quarter of Hillsborough's 1.1 million residents. They accounted for 7.4 percent of the population in Pinellas, 10.5 percent in Pasco and 16.3 percent in Polk. Miami-Dade remains Florida's only county with a majority Hispanic population, at 62 percent.
Traditionally, Pasco's minority populations lived in enclaves in the northeast corner of the county and in a small pocket near Port Richey. Those areas remain strongholds for Pasco's black and Hispanic populations, many of them low-income.
Middle- and upper-income people have become the new face of Pasco's minorities, from Indian doctors to Cuban store owners.
Paulsen said she has heard people stereotype Hispanics as poor and shiftless. Nothing could be farther from the truth, particularly in Pasco's suburban neighborhoods, she said.
"The people moving into Wesley Chapel are actually business owners," said Paulsen, who moved to Land O' Lakes from Hillsborough County in 2008.
"People don't realize how many Hispanics we have here in Pasco," Paulsen said. "When I went looking for a home, everyone I saw was Hispanic."