Peace Heals Businesses in Ferguson-Area Riot Zones

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FergusonInsurance agent Will Bates used to have trouble getting people to visit the Just Insurance office on West Florissant Avenue in Dellwood, a neighboring town of Ferguson.

“People used to call and say, ‘Where are you located?’ We’d tell them and they’d say, ‘No. I’m not going down there,’” he said.

That was in the aftermath of the riots of 2014, when protest over a police shooting exploded in spasms of looting, burning and gunfire stretching through August, with a repeat riot Thanksgiving week. The building next to Bates’ office burned to rubble.

But 20 months of peace have erased much fear. Customers aren’t reluctant to come anymore. “I’d say it’s getting back to normal,” said Bates.

That’s the word among business owners in the affected areas of Ferguson and Dellwood. The businesses that survived say they’ve recovered most or all of their sales.

Empty lots mark the spots where buildings were burned into ruins along West Florissant and were later bulldozed. But other businesses have opened, drawn to a place with lots of traffic and cheap rent.

“It’s a pretty low-cost place to do business here, and that’s a perk,” said Ferguson Councilwoman Heather Robinett.

West Florissant Avenue, which spans parts of Ferguson and Dellwood in north St. Louis County, was one of two epicenters of upheaval in 2014, the other being South Florissant Road near the Ferguson police station.

The two streets have a very different feel. South Florissant Road is Ferguson’s little downtown, with a brewpub, coffee shop, restaurants, and wine and cigar bars. A 28-unit apartment is being built within sight of the police station, with a restaurant planned for the first floor.

Visible signs of the troubles have all but disappeared as buildings were patched up, rebuilt and reopened.

“Nobody talks about it,” said Shaheen Rafiq of the troubles. She has spent 24 years running a Subway restaurant on South Florissant, and she says her sales are back to normal.

“Donald Trump said this is a dangerous place. It’s not a dangerous place,” she said. “This is a very pleasant place to run a business.”

Less than two miles east, West Florissant has a grittier vibe, and the area suffered far more damage in the riots. It’s near the spot where Michael Brown was shot dead by a Ferguson police officer. Anger in the crowd that gathered near his body was a harbinger of trouble to come.

West Florissant is a busy, five-lane road. In the stretch from Chambers Road in Dellwood south to the neighboring town of Jennings, the street is lined by mom-and-pop groceries, fast-food places, auto repair and beauty shops. Some are free-standing. Others are in older strip centers on a street built for function, not beauty.

Businesses that weren’t burned into ruins have largely repaired, reopened and stayed put on West Florissant. They report that business isn’t quite back to the level before August 2014, but it’s headed that way.

“Maybe 90 percent,” says Idowu Ajibola, who runs the Rehoboth Pharmacy and African Depot Beauty Supplies store out of the same space on West Florissant. That assessment is repeated up and down the avenue.

Like many of its neighbors, Rehoboth Pharmacy was looted during the riots.

“People are still worried,” he said. But the focus has turned to events far from Ferguson — the killing of both civilians and police in Baton Rouge, La.; North Charleston, S.C.; a St. Paul, Minn., suburb; Dallas and elsewhere.

“There is a pronounced reaction” among his customers, said Ajibola, who emigrated from Nigeria. “There is upset, frustration,” he added. “People are feeling disgruntled about the system.”

Some lingering unease remains among business owners, too, despite the long spell of peace.

John Zisser finally took down the plywood that covered his showroom for more than a year and a half at Zisser’s Tire and Auto Repair on West Florissant. Before the trouble, he had floor-to-ceiling windows. Looters broke in repeatedly, helping themselves to expensive wheels and tools.

Zisser replaced the plywood with new walls and narrower windows. “It will make it much more difficult for them to get in and out with something,” he said.

He left political commentary in place on the big sign outside his business. “Epic fail, Jay Nixon. Epic fail.” it says. It’s been there since the November 2014 round of rioting, when the governor decided not to deploy the National Guard on West Florissant and more buildings burned.

Zisser has a pang of worry every day he drives to work. He compares it to what a person might feel after their house is burglarized. “I wonder if it’s going to be OK,” he said.

RECOVERING SALES

The economic impact of the riots is reflected in taxable sales figures for Ferguson and Dellwood. In Ferguson, they show a significant drop after the riot, but a small rebound by the end of last year.

For instance, taxable sales were $68.3 million in Ferguson in the fourth quarter of 2013 (October through December), according to Missouri Department of Revenue records. That dropped 10.5 percent to $61.1 million in the fourth quarter of 2014, the first full quarter after the trouble began. By the final quarter of last year, long after peace returned, sales taxes produced $62.1 million, state records show.

In Dellwood, sales fell sharply from $6.6 million in the fourth quarter of 2013 to $5.9 million in the fourth quarter of 2014. They slid further, to $5.7 million in the last quarter of last year.

Ferguson produced $250 million in sales in all of 2015, compared to $269 million in 2013, the year before the unrest. Dellwood generated $22.8 million in 2015 compared to $27.2 million in 2013.

But things seem better this year. Shop owners say they are getting more customers.

There is only one ruin still standing in the West Florissant area, a burned out, half-demolished strip mall on the corner of Chambers. Ericka Hawkins opened Ericka’s Closet next door three months ago. The little boutique had been located in an office building in Brentwood, but Hawkins thought the new site would draw more traffic.

Indeed, it has. About 30,000 cars a day pass the corner of West Florissant and Chambers, which means a lot of people looking for a burger, or gasoline, or perhaps a new blouse.

Hawkins found the rent cheap, and the area’s riotous past didn’t disturb her. “I see them trying to build things up,” she said.

(Source: TCA)