Insurance agent Will Bates used to have trouble getting people to visit the Just Insurance office on West Florissant Avenue in Dellwood.
“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 protests 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 have 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 building 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 Jennings, the street is lined by mom-and-pop groceries, fast-food places, auto repair and beauty shops. Some are freestanding. 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.
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.
That high traffic count is a lifeline for businesses and may explain why so many hung on.
Some businesses have opened and some have closed since the trouble, but that would be normal on any long street. The Ferguson Burger Bar, which got national attention when the owner refused to board his windows, closed this June. But in the same little shopping center, there’s a grand opening sign for business Boutique Candy Couture.
West Florissant, however, did take some sizable blows. Target plans to close its store in the Westfall Shopping Center on West Florissant in Jennings later this month. The company says it typically closes stores after “several years of decreasing profitability.” Police used the shopping center as their staging area during the riots and protests.
The Toys R Us store on the northern end of the avenue was looted during the troubles and closed last year.
But there has been good news, too. Centene Corp. provided perhaps the biggest economic boost when it opened a new $25 million service center with more than 200 employees just south of Interstate 270, about two miles from the trouble zone.
Starbucks, with much fanfare, opened a store on West Florissant’s northern stretch, which has a greener, more suburban feel with newer, bigger shopping centers. AT&T also added a store.
O’Reilly Auto Parts is building a new store on the bulldozed site of its old one.
“It’s a great local market,” said a spokesperson for the Springfield, Mo.-based chain. Red’s BBQ, which closed after suffering damage in the riots, is being fixed up for another use.
Developer and real estate broker Jeff Eisenberg says he is close to rebuilding the Family Dollar store that burned down. He says he has signed a long-term lease with the chain and is arranging financing.
He says he’s also negotiating a lease with a national retailer to fill the former supermarket in the all-but-empty Springwood Plaza shopping center on West Florissant.
As for the other empty lots where stores once stood: “That’s been frustrating from a broker’s standpoint,” he said.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said there are more businesses operating in Ferguson today than before the troubles. But he’s disappointed that developers haven’t replaced the burned-out buildings on West Florissant.
“There have been a lot of people sniffing around and putting ideas together, but nothing has come to fruition yet.”
He’s also disturbed by the lack of federal help. St. Louis lost out on an application for a $38 million federal “disaster resilience” grant for North County, despite quoting needs from the Ferguson Commission report on the riots. “So far, we’ve got nothing,” said the mayor.
Local businesses have had help from private donors and government. They’ve doled out $800,000 in no-interest fix-up loans to 81 businesses with money from St. Louis County, the state of Missouri and a group of banks led by Pulaski Bank. The St. Louis County Port Authority allocated $500,000 to tear down wrecked buildings and fix up those that remain. It’s offering grants of $10,000 to $25,000 to businesses in the damaged area.
“Over time, the buildings will come back. It’s a market issue. It’s not something government can step in and do,” said St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.
But government can help the market along, he notes. Along West Florissant, that means finding $37 million to fund a “Great Streets” plan.
The East-West Gateway Council of Governments finished the plan just before the riots. It would make West Florissant a “green nexus” with tree plantings, nicer sidewalks, green median strips, fancy street lights, “town center meeting places” and easier access from neighborhoods.
“The goal is to make West Florissant a vibrant community where you can shop and get great restaurants,” said Dellwood Mayor Reggie Jones.
There’s a “very high” chance of getting that Great Streets money from the federal government, says Stenger. The affected area, along with much of North County, has been designated a Promise Zone, which gives it a major boost in competition for federal dollars.
“We’ve done everything we can do to set this up for success,” Stenger said.