After a Tough Year, Ferguson, Mo., Awaits Anniversary Protests

As the year anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting approaches, join Courthouse News in this three-part series looking at how the protests have affected Ferguson.

     FERGUSON, Mo. (CN) – In business, location is everything.
     For nearly 40 years, Andy Wurm’s Tire and Wheel, on South Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, has drawn customers from the entire St. Louis region.
     Unfortunately, its location across the street from the Police Department and Municipal Court buildings has made it ground zero for the protests sparked by the Michael Brown shooting.
     Even with hundreds of angry protesters hanging right outside, Wurm’s building was one of the few that was never touched, though he never boarded up his windows that display the latest in valuable rims.
     “It’s just trying to do right by people,” Wurm told Courthouse News. “I don’t have a problem with peaceful protest. I have a problem with violence.”
     But though he suffered no physical damage, Wurm’s tire shop has not come through the past year unscathed.
     “Our business is down about 50 percent,” Wurm said. “We haven’t laid anybody off, but everybody is only working four days instead of five.”
     With Sunday marking the first anniversary of the Brown shooting, Wurm fears the worst, as weekend-long protests throughout the region are planned.
     “Just day to day is the only thing you can do and hope you make the right decisions,” Wurm said.
     “Most of the violence didn’t even happen in Ferguson, that’s Dellwood and Jennings over there. There’s only one little square block and where the kid was killed was in Ferguson, that’s why they single out Ferguson.”
     Wurm isn’t the only business owner feeling the tension as Sunday approaches.
     Faraci Pizza and many other businesses still have windows boarded up, and others, such as Cose Dolci Bakery, announced on their Facebook pages that they will close early on Saturday.
     Dan Bish, Ferguson’s community development coordinator, said the effects of the protests have been felt by businesses throughout the city.
     “We haven’t had as many closures as I think people would have expected to hear, with businesses being down for almost an entire year, but our small business owners are making it work and pushing through,” Bish said in an interview.
     “Even though some of the stores haven’t quite rebounded to where they were last year, some of them have. A number of them are still having difficulty, because even though they have rebounded since last year, they have a significant loss to make up. Even though sales are where they should be, it doesn’t change the fact that you had a significant period of loss. That’s going to have to be made up over time.”
     The main problem has been lack of foot traffic.
     Businesses like Wurm’s draw from all over the region. They have been hurt because people outside of Ferguson are afraid to come.
     Bish said Ferguson has regular events designed to bring people back to town. There are free concerts at Plaza 501, in the heart of downtown, a Springfest street festival, a winter tree-lighting, a farmer’s market every Saturday and food truck Mondays.
     “Some people, unfortunately, are still hesitant to come back,” Mayor James Knowles III told Courthouse News. “We’re hoping as we continue to move forward that people will continue to feel comfortable coming back. We hope there isn’t a setback this weekend and we’ve taken all necessary precautions to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
     The protests haven’t discouraged large businesses from investing in Ferguson. Centene, a health care company is building a new facility, Emerson is expanding, a Schnucks grocery warehouse just opened, a Planet Fitness is taking over an abandoned Big Lots store and the Urban League is building where the QuikTrip on West Florissant used to be.
     “There’s still a strong business climate here,” Bish said. “We’ve still got a lot of companies coming in and bringing in a lot of jobs. It’s really exciting to see all these bigger corporations step up and contribute to our economy.”
     The city needs the tax money. Ferguson’s deficit is expected to increase to $3.2 million for the fiscal year ending in June 2016. That doesn’t include police and city court reforms the Justice Department demanded that could cost millions. The City Council this week rejected the reforms demanded by the Justice Department, and asked for more time to come up with its own plan.
     Ferguson has two business districts – one along South Florissant Road and the other along the West Florissant Road corridor.
     The South Florissant corridor is considered downtown Ferguson. Before Michael Brown was killed, that corridor was Ferguson’s image. Aside from Wurm’s Tire, there are numerous restaurants, a microbrewery and the only cigar bar in north St. Louis County.
     The West Florissant corridor, not quite as vibrant, borders the area where Brown was shot. That’s where the burning and looting started on Nov. 24, after a grand jury refused to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson for Brown’s death.
     The scars of that night are still visible along West Florissant. Numerous buildings remain boarded up and chain link fence surrounds several properties where burnt out buildings have been cleared.
     Knowles said the city is redesigning the sidewalks to make the corridor friendlier to pedestrians and bicyclists. A Dellwood-Ferguson-West Florissant Business Association has been formed to strengthen those businesses.
     “I’m getting a lot of people who are committed to staying,” Mayor Knowles said. “Some of the buildings that have been burned, they are in the process of planning to be rebuilt. I know that two of the buildings that are being rebuilt are already 100 percent pre-leased. So knowing that people are coming back, some of which were completely driven out of the community, that’s very encouraging.”
     Despite the difficult year, business owners in both corridors “are proud of where they are,” Bish said. “They’re proud of the business they run and they’re proud of their community. They’re doing everything they can to stay open, because they realize that this is a great place to run a business and raise a family.”
     Wurm knows that. His father started the family business four decades ago. But the past year has taken a toll.
     “The Ferguson people are great people,” Wurm said. “Most of the people are not from Ferguson who are doing this. It needs to go away. There’s no sense in it. I don’t sleep. People as a whole are good and most of these Ferguson people I can tell you right now are done and it’s going to get violent, I believe.
     “We’ll survive. We will not leave Ferguson. We love Ferguson. We love the Ferguson people.”
     Click the hyperlinked text to go to the other stories in this series, Women’s Group Has Better Idea for Ferguson and Mayor Says Ferguson Isn’t the Only Problem.

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