Commercial districts in Detroit, Newark and Washington were ravaged by civil unrest in the 1960s, leading to decades of economic stagnation. In Ferguson, Missouri, business owners are seeking to avert a similar fate.
Even as law enforcement struggles to restore order, merchants still assessing damage from arson and looting said they’re growing anxious over how long it will take to rebuild from unrest that followed a grand jury’s decision not to charge a white police officer who shot an unarmed black 18-year-old.
A volunteer group, STL Forward, recognizing the danger of inaction, has started an advertising campaign promoting commerce that features a figure personally linked to the killing.
“I do not want my son’s death to be in vain,” Michael Brown Sr., father of the victim, said in a video. “I want it to lead to incredible change. Positive change. Change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.”
Among the first steps are repairing the physical damage.
Officials of the Missouri Department of Insurance met with business owners at the Ferguson Public Library yesterday to help merchants file claims.
“We’ve been working off a list of businesses that we believed to have been affected and reaching out to them,” said Chris Cline, a spokesman.
At least a dozen buildings were burned to the ground on Nov. 24 and scores of windows were broken in the hours after a St. Louis County prosecutor announced Officer Darren Wilson wouldn’t be charged in the death of Michael Brown.
While the violence has subsided, Ferguson remains on edge. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said the police presence will be maintained through the Thanksgiving holidays.
A looted cell phone store is seen the morning after violent protests damaged businesses following the grand jury announcement in the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri, on Nov. 25, 2014.
“The ramped up presence and action of the Missouri National Guard has been helpful,” Nixon said yesterday in a statement. “I will continue to monitor the situation closely to determine whether additional resources are necessary to protect public safety.”
In 1967, riots in Detroit left 43 dead, 1,200 injured and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. The violence hastened the decline of the former auto-building capital, which last year filed the largest municipal bankruptcy case in U.S. history.
Civil unrest the same year in Newark, New Jersey, killed 26. And Washington riots in 1968 resulted in 12 fatalities and the burning of more than 900 stores, crippling the inner-city economy of the nation’s capital.
Although Ferguson is much smaller, at 21,000 people, the potential economic effects from disturbances may be significant, business owners say.
“Who’s going to want to come down with all this stuff going on?” said Robin Shively, owner of Corners Frameshop and Gallery, a few blocks from the Ferguson Police Station.
Windows were smashed and some artwork damaged inside the store. Shively said she has insurance but worries that holiday sales would take a hit. The day before Thanksgiving, the store was closed and covered with plywood. The art and shiny frames previously visible from the street through floor-to-ceiling glass windows are now concealed by wood.
The biggest challenge facing Ferguson isn’t related to insurance, said Larry Case, executive vice president of the Missouri Association of Insurance Agents.
“It’s the reputation of the town, attracting people to the town,” Case said. “How do you dig yourself out of this with the perception in the country right now, of lawlessness in the community?”
“This is a horrific disaster, but it’s man-made,” Case said.
Rebecca Zoll, president of North County Inc., an economic development agency in St. Louis County, said business owners she’s spoken with are reluctant to file claims.
“There is a concern from the small business community that if they turn a claim in that they’ll be penalized with higher rates,” Zoll said. “And they’re concerned, because of the recent civil unrest, that they won’t even be able to get insurance in the future.”
For now, Ferguson remains a police zone. Until that status changes, the payment for insurance claims will likely be delayed.
“The area has to be safe for insurance adjusters to visit,” said Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute.