The Small Businesses of Ferguson
The story of Ferguson, Missouri began in the 1850s. Back then, enterprising landowner William Ferguson sold a parcel of his farm so the North Missouri Railroad could make a station, and afterwards he sold more land to merchants and families.
Until last Saturday afternoon, Ferguson, which sits ten miles north of St. Louis, was like many other Midwestern towns. The town's history is threaded throughout with common themes of America--a strong entrepreneurial ethos, endurance, hope, as well as a certain ebbing of fortune when massive forces reshaped the country. What's called "white flight" struck and took a toll; the deep recession that began in 2008 landed body blows. Ferguson, the population of which is around 20,000, also suffered by being yoked to St. Louis, which did not take part in the urban renaissance of recent decades that revitalized most major American cities.
Gerry Noll, who owns the Ferguson Bicycle Shop on South Florissant Avenue with his youngest son, said Ferguson has had its ups and downs--boom years followed both World Wars, for instance, before tough times struck again. "Like many other suburbs of larger cities," Noll says, "Ferguson fell into decay as empty storefronts appeared along our business districts." Restoration and revitilization efforts, through special business development and tax increment financing districts, helped Ferguson to get back on its feet, says Noll.
John Zisser, who's owned Zisser Tire and Auto on West Florissant Avenue for thirty years, had to sell half of his business after the economic downturn of 2008. But in 2014, he began feeling optimistic again. "This year, business has been the best it's been since before the recession," he says. "We thought we were looking at the light at the end of the tunnel. Now we are dealing with this problem."
As much of the world knows, what Zisser refers to happened on Saturday, August 9, when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old. (In an especially outrageous failing, authorities did not remove Brown's lifeless body from the street for several hours.) For five days, police refused to release Wilson's name or release the official report on the circumstances surrounding the college-bound Brown's death. Protestors took to the streets, and, until Missouri Governor Jay Nixon brought in the State Highway Patrol on August 14, local police responded with a shockingly militarized response that outraged Ferguson's citizens and horrified millions who watched it happen in real-time on social media.
On the night of August 10, a candlelight vigil on West Florissant Avenue turned violent as police clashed with protesters. Looters ignited a QuickTrip convenience store, and ransacked over a dozen other businesses. Zisser watched his Zisser Tire and Auto store get destroyed during those riots.
"It's unbelievable to see your business, property, and everything you worked for over 30 years being carried out of the door," Zisser says. "They broke 12 out of the 14 plates of glass windows. They stole 85 percent of the tires and wheels on the showroom floor. The damage is $25,000 in glass alone. Every time I turn around there's $5,000 in damage here, $5,000 there. It's approaching $200,000 in total very quick," he says.
Until Thursday night, the St. Louis County Police, equipped with armored vehicles, automatic weapons, tear gas, and rubber bullets, shut down peaceful protests by gassing civilians and posting snipers who aimed weapons at the crowd.
President Obama denounced such tactics and announced on Thursday that the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI will start separate investigations into Brown's death. By Friday morning, the military weapons and vehicles and tear gas were gone. But unrest in Ferguson continued through the weekend, and no one should assume the wounds to the town nor the anguish of Brown's friends and family will heal anytime soon.
Inc. spoke to local business owners in the aftermath of a traumatic and bewildering week.
A problem of trust
Ibrahim Rammaha, who co-owns Sam's Meat & Liquors on West Florissant Avenue, says his store got hit "the second hardest" by looters on Sunday night. After QuickTrip went up in flames, looters walked across the street, broke into his store, and stole or destroyed almost all of his inventory.
"They took over $20,000 worth of meat from our freezer, all the liquor, all the cigarettes, the lottery--down to toilet paper, and diapers," Rammaha says. "They took everything. The air conditioner, the generator, the safe, the paperwork, and then trashed all the shelves. They took what they wanted and destroyed the rest."
But his reaction to what happened may surprise you. A business owner in Ferguson for the last five years, Rammaha says flatly, "I don't blame the community. I don't blame the looters. Most of our customers are family, and the people who did this to our store are not part of our community." Indeed, according to published reports, the 30 or so looters arrested on Sunday weren't from Ferguson.
"The cops weren't doing what they're supposed to do. They weren't letting the people march. Wednesday was a peaceful protest, and the SWAT team came in shooting tear gas," he says. "Every time the cops come, they aggravated the protesters, and that's when this kind of thing happens." (Inc. spoke to Rammaha on August 14, before the State Highway Patrol instituted its far less antagonistic mode of policing.)
Rammaha said his store was nearly cleaned up, and that while he suffered huge losses, he will get "back on the horse." He's still worried, though. Just not about what you might think. Rammaha, a Kuwaiti refugee whose middle name is Osama, says "there are some good cops, but there's more cops out there who continually abuse their power. Whenever cops find out my middle name, their entire attitude changes."
"When I see those certain cops in town," he continues, "I know I have to look the other way or get out of sight."
Hope and despair
Noll, who opened Ferguson Bicycle Shop four years ago, had only had positive experiences with the local police. But what he saw this week is frightening, he says.
"The police presence and response is out of hand. You see them in riot gear, shooting tear gas, holding automatic weapons--to me, that's way overboard," Noll told Inc., before the State Highway Patrol took over patrols in Ferguson. "I don't know who is in charge, or who is making the decisions, but there is no reason to escalate things to that level."
The waning fortunes of St. Louis and Ferguson have already hurt his business in recent years, Zisser says. Zisser has three locations in Missouri, but he had an international business he sold in 2006. A separate division that serviced fleet vehicles that was forced to close in 2009.
"The recession was painful. Wheels sales went down 90 percent. Along with tire sales, that's 90 percent of tires you also didn't sell," he says, since many customers buy both wheels and tires. "Thankfully, we ratholed a lot of money for a rainy day." But the recession lasted years, so it's been raining for a while, and he's worried the first rays of sun he saw this year before the riot are gone. "Now it's pretty much dead. We'll be able to pay the electric bill today. But maybe not the heat throughout the winter."
Although some politicians showed up at his store, he said the real help has come from the community. "One man came in to buy tires for his Jeep and left a $100 bill on the counter. People have come in and said how sorry they are that people destroyed our store. It's nice to know that the majority of people out there are good, care about our community, and are not thugs," he says.
"I'm a small business owner, so I am an optimist by definition," says Noll. "I can easily envision a conclusion that is positive for our community--if the way we react to the negative events is positive."
Zisser worries more people will move from Ferguson. According to the 2010 census, the population has declined by over 1,000 people from 2000. "People do forget pretty fast," he says. "But this week will leave a big scar."
WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com
Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported on the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.