More than five months after the last big eruption of destruction, the business districts of Ferguson and nearby Dellwood are healing, albeit slowly.
Most of the 18 buildings destroyed during the riots have been bulldozed flat, although at least two are still rubble.
Most stores that were damaged but weren’t burned down have reopened, and others are being repaired. Customers are coming back, although not as many as before the unrest that followed the fatal shooting on Aug. 9 of Michael Brown by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson.
Despite lingering unease, a few new businesses have opened where looters and arsonists once ran free.
“People are not running away,” said Jeff Eisenberg, a commercial real estate operator who owned a Family Dollar store that was looted and burned on Nov. 25, and later demolished. Like some other owners of burned-out property, he plans to rebuild — if he can sign a tenant.
Two development companies have been quietly shopping for possible deals along West Florissant Avenue and the nearby low-income apartment complexes that form the epicenter of the riots.
Steve Stogel, president of DFC Properties, confirmed that his firm and McCormack Baron Salazar are looking in the area. McCormack Baron is a well-respected developer of low- and moderate-income urban housing.
“It’s been slow going,” Stogel said. “I have nothing to report. I don’t have one contract signed, not with one property owner.”
One possibility being considered would be for a new building along West Florissant to house nonprofit agencies. The Urban League already plans an office on the nearby site of a destroyed QuikTrip.
Other businesses say they’re seeing more customers.
“It’s coming back, but I don’t think it’s back to normal,” said Idowu Ajibola, manager of the Rehoboth Pharmacy and beauty supply shop on West Florissant. Both were targets of looters.
The boards are now off the pharmacy’s windows. Ajibola used insurance money to rearrange the store, moving the pharmacy deeper inside behind a metal door so that future looters would have a tough time getting to the drugs.
“The community is going to be healed,” said Ajibola, who has run the pharmacy for eight years. “It’s coming back a little bit faster than I thought it would.”
That’s a common sentiment along West Florissant Avenue, which took the brunt of the destruction in August and November, and Florissant Road, where a number of businesses also saw significant damage. Business is slowly returning as the memories of chaos fade. But the effects linger.
Worry runs deep. Local shop owners were frightened by a smaller outbreak of violence in the last week of April.
It began with a protest over the death while in police custody of Freddie Gray, 25, in Baltimore. But it turned into rock-throwing, looting and shooting. The Dellwood Mobil Mart convenience store was looted for the third time since August. Two other stores endured break-ins. Three people were shot.
“There are people waiting to just loot,” Ajibola said.
Is the trouble finally over? “I think it’s very unpredictable,” said Reggie Jones, mayor of Dellwood. Although the world knows the problem by the name of Ferguson, much of the damage was actually in Dellwood, including the Mobil Mart and the Rehoboth Pharmacy.
David Mahmoud and his brother run a cellphone sales counter in the Mobil Mart. “People around here feel not very safe,” he said. “When we leave at night, we take all the phones with us.”
His solution: “We need a cop at every gas station in Ferguson,” he said. “How do I know somebody isn’t going to come in here with a gun?”
Lots of business owners, employees and shoppers willingly take that risk. A reporter walking West Florissant on a recent weekday found the seats filled at beauty parlors, short lines of customers at cellphone stores and plenty of cars in parking lots.
They arrive on a very busy street, and that may be the saving grace for local businesses. More than 30,000 cars a day pass a nearby intersection. That means lots of people needing a burger, gasoline or a gallon of milk.
The southern section of West Florissant consists of rows of small, aging strip centers behind narrow parking lots, separated by fast-food restaurants, mom-and-pop groceries, drug stores and auto repair shops.
There are lots of big signs and ugly asphalt on a street built for convenience, not beauty.
The northern section near Interstate 270 is a bit greener. It hosts a Wal-Mart, an all-but-empty shopping center, fast-food shops and a Toys R Us store that closed permanently after being looted.
The city of Ferguson counts five burned-out buildings that owners plan to rebuild in the city’s portion of the West Florissant riot area, including the former site of the QuikTrip where the Urban League plans to build a community outreach center.
On a recent morning, Tammy Cao was watching a construction crew repair damage at her Hunan Chop Suey Restaurant on West Florissant. She had run the restaurant for six years until rioters set it ablaze.
Did she consider moving the business elsewhere? “I own the building. I didn’t have a choice. All my life is here,” she said.
Business owners say insurance companies have been liberally writing checks, although some haven’t completely settled their claims.
Those checks meant that St. Louis County had to spend less than half the $500,000 it allocated to speed demolition and remove the charred eyesores. Officials plan to spend the rest on “beautification” along the streets.
The Recovery St. Louis Coalition has made $750,000 in no-interest loans to local businesses out of a $1 million treasury provided by the state of Missouri, the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, the St. Louis Regional Chamber and a group of banks.
North County Inc. and the Regional Business Council raised donations and provided about $500,000 in grants to 56 local businesses and school districts.
“The key thing was to get the businesses open again,” said Rodney Crim, president of the Partnership, the city-county development arm.
Two months before the August outbreak, the East-West Gateway Council of Governments finished a 154-page plan for West Florissant. It called for turning the street into a “green nexus” with tree plantings, nicer sidewalks, green median strips, “town center meeting places” and easier access from neighborhoods.
The plan was designed, in part, to stop pedestrians from being hit by cars, a chronic danger in the area.
Local officials still see that plan as the future. The problem: it would cost $30 million to $40 million and no one is offering the money.
Ajibola, the pharmacist, thinks government help is needed. “It’s just like your children. You have to invest in it. If you don’t you’ll have more trouble at the end of the day.”
Now, Crim’s agency is shopping for grants to fund further fix-up work, and planning a marketing campaign to attract shoppers.
Through a spokesman, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles declined to be interviewed on the city’s business prospects.
Along West Florissant, some new businesses already have opened. They include a new Fast Track Urgent Care office, a large furniture store and a Royal Cellular office. They were in the works before the troubles.
A reporter found the cellphone store busy for much of the morning and afternoon on a recent Thursday. Royal had signed a lease before the trouble began in August, said district manager Zaheer Nawab. If the owners had known what was coming, they would never have signed.
“I would not have moved there because of all the ruckus,” he said.
As it was, the opening was delayed until he could find a contractor willing to work there.
Other new businesses coming include Centene, which said last fall it would open a processing center a little more than 2 miles from the epicenter of the West Florissant protests. And Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz also cheered Ferguson when he promised to open a coffee shop there, although a location was not identified.
Along South Florissant Road, where damage was less severe, recovery is more apparent. A new cigar bar and a barbecue restaurant opened after the riots, and a developer is planning a 23-unit apartment building within sight of the police headquarters, which had been a focus of frequent protests.
“It’s getting back to normal. We haven’t had demonstrators for a week,” said Sandy Sansevere, who was selling Ferguson-logo clothing in the I Love Ferguson store, a nonprofit that opened in August, after the protests began.
“All the businesses have been open,” she said. “People are sitting out. You can hear kids laughing, people out walking their dogs.”
Ferguson held its outdoor Spring Fest last weekend. Local residents considered it a test of whether the city was returning to normal. The biggest problem encountered was the rain. The outdoor farmers market is also reopening.
Gerry Noll, owner of the Ferguson Bicycle Shop, saw his business drop 35 percent after last year’s riots — a figure typical for business in the trouble zones.
But customers are back, and his business so far this year is running 10 percent ahead of last year.
He is optimistic about the future. “I think it’s headed for something better. No doubt there have been problems here, but a lot of people are committed to seeing those things fixed,” he said.
Down the street, manager Clayton Woodward tends bar at the newly opened Montrey’s Cigar Lounge, selling 100 brands of cigars and 60 brands of whiskey. The owners converted an old single-family house, removing the second floor to create a big open barroom.
The lounge was under construction when the trouble hit, but the owners decided to continue. “Business has been great. The numbers overall are really good,” he said.