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Ferguson's Small Businesses Try To Recover After Riots

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Ferguson, Missouri, held the unwelcome spotlight for weeks last month, as protests over the shooting of Michael Brown spiraled into rioting and looting. Now work is underway to help small businesses in the suburb get back on their feet. Civic leaders say the effort is critical to the whole St. Louis area. St. Louis Public Radio's Maria Altman has this progress report.

MARIA ALTMAN, BYLINE: West Florrisant Avenue in Ferguson is no longer the site of nightly protests and police suited up in riot gear. But all up and down the street, shops still have plywood nailed over their doors and windows. Even the businesses that did not get looted took a financial hit. Inside Clip Appeal Barbershop, owner Kaye Mershon says many of her clients stayed away.

KAYE MERSHON: You tried to come in the evening, it was almost impossible to get down the street. Things are picking up, but they're still pretty slow, which is a concern, but we're not going to give up. We've been here, and we plan on saying, so...

ALTMAN: Eleven miles away, in the heart of downtown St. Louis, the fate of Ferguson businesses concerns Joe Reagan, who heads the St. Louis regional chamber of commerce.

JOE REAGAN: We know that if Ferguson is not successful, then we won't be successful as St. Louis and vice versa.

ALTMAN: He says more than 80 businesses here saw their revenues plummet during the three weeks of turmoil. The chamber created a million dollar program with the state of Missouri, an economic development partnership and several local banks to offer no interest loans. While Reagan insists that the region is not lost any businesses considering moving to St. Louis, he knows there's more scrutiny than before.

REAGAN: What will really make the difference is not what has happened, but what we do - especially from the leadership of the community and the business community - what we do over the next weeks, months and years to show and demonstrate that we're building the kind of great community that we know we have.

ALTMAN: One local Fortune 500 company is already promising to build a new facility in Ferguson. Centene Corporation, which operates government-sponsored health care programs in 20 states, announced a new claims processing center this month, bringing up to 200 jobs to Ferguson. CEO and chairman Michael Neidorff says they were already planning a facility in the region, and moving to Ferguson just made sense.

MICHAEL NEIDORFF: When the incidents unfolded in Ferguson, and I learned that small shopkeepers were considering should we reopen or not, and you heard when they asked individuals, what do you want, they said, jobs, I said, why not give the community some hope, show we have confidence in the greater St. Louis area?

ALTMAN: Even with the effort to help small businesses and create new jobs here, there's still an era of economic uncertainty. Boston University's Robert Margo, who's studied the long-term impact of rioting from the 1960s, is not surprised. He says it's crucial that Ferguson residents feel confident that violence won't soon erupt again.

ROBERT MARGO: That's really, I think, what happened in the 60s - is that occurrence of one of these events in these cities essentially heightened the fear of future events or crime in general. I think that's really the issue.

ALTMAN: And back at the barbershop, Kaye Mershon says there is indeed a fear that violence could reignite next month. That's when a grand jury will decide whether to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown.

MERSHON: It definitely is scary. We're going to think positive, and that's what we've been trying to do - that. Everything is going to work out for the good, and there'll be no more peace disturbances.

ALTMAN: And while businesses here remain open, many are keeping their doors and windows boarded up. For NPR News, I'm Maria Altman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maria Altman

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