While many businesses damaged during Ferguson-related protests have received help, their experiences and prospects for full recovery vary by neighborhood.
For roughly 30 years, Café Natasha owner Hamishe Bahrami has served up succulent falafel sandwiches and sumptuous osh to hungry folks on St. Louis’ South Grand Boulevard.
But Bahrami won’t forget what happened to her eatery on Nov. 24. That's when a grand jury decided not to indict former Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown. In reaction, vandals smashed nine of Café Natasha’s windows. Bahrami said it cost thousands of dollars to board up and replace them.
“The money is not really a big thing. I mean, somehow you come up with the money. We had lots of help,” Bahrami said. “But mentally, it was very damaging for us. It’s hard to describe because when you come see all your business you worked so hard for for so many years – just somebody comes in one second and destroys it. And you had nothing to do with it. You weren’t involved in anything.”
But Café Natasha’s misfortune was short-lived. Fans of the Persian restaurant flocked there to support Bahrami and her family. And she also received assistance from the Small Business Relief Program, which provided her business with a $1,500 no-interest loan that proved helpful in repairing the damage.
“You concentrate about running your business without delay. And that was very important,” she said. “And just the support made us keep going. Otherwise, we couldn’t make it.”
Since Michael Brown was shot and killed last August, several relief funds have provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to businesses affected by the unrest. The funds have helped stabilized neighborhoods like South Grand.
But those efforts may not be enough in Ferguson and Dellwood, which sustained the lion’s share of damage after the grand jury decision. Some see a need for a much broader effort to save a once-promising business corridor from taking a turn for the worse.
And while policymakers said they’re trying to seek out more resources to help north St. Louis County, time may be of the essence.
“The problem is that these individual businesses, one-by-one, may be able to piece together the funds through insurance and otherwise to get the doors back open,” said Jay Kanzler, an attorney who represents a number of businesses in Ferguson and Dellwood. “But they aren’t going to be able to rejuvenate that area, turn it into an area that is conducive to businesses and that people want to come back to and that people want to live in.”
In the weeks and months following protests throughout the St. Louis region, public and private groups set up several relief funds to help businesses.
One of these initiatives is the Small Business Relief Program, which has divvied out around $700,000 of no-interest loans to about 60 businesses. It also includes the Reinvest North County Fund, which has provided around $300,000 worth of grants to businesses and schools in north St. Louis County.
The relief program was a combined effort of governmental entities like the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and business organizations such as the St. Louis Regional Chamber. Partnership President Rodney Crim said the fund’s work has made a difference to struggling businesses.
“It has been impactful,” Crim said. “Not only in repairing windows and that type of thing – physical damage – but also addressing working capital and employment needs for the various businesses. So pretty significant.”
North County Inc. President Rebecca Zoll’s group has helped operate the Reinvest North County Fund, which has provided grants to roughly 50 businesses. She said the goal of the fund was “to bring some relief to the small businesses in the way of just some triage dollars to help them sustain themselves during the crisis and keep their doors open.”
“For a small business I think that the Regional Business Council and North County Inc.’s fund has allowed them to just sustain themselves and keep their doors open during a very, very challenging period of time,” Zoll said. “Many of these businesses that we were able to help, they’ve been profitable and good businesses for decades in this corridor. And this has been a challenge like they’ve never seen before.”
To see what Zoll means by “a challenge,” look at the portions of West Florissant Boulevard that run through Ferguson and Dellwood. That street was often ground zero for violent protests after Brown was killed.
Scores of businesses there were burned and looted after the grand jury decision. The charred remains of these businesses still stick out to potential customers.
This setting is proving to be a major problem for New York Grill, a Dellwood restaurant that received a $15,000 no-interest loan from the Small Business Relief Program. The eatery’s co-owner, Mohamad Yaacoub, said few people want to partake in shish kabobs or gyros while staring at rubble.
“We lose a lot of money because nobody comes in here,” said Yaacoub, who is also the owner of Sam’s Meat Market in Ferguson.
Kanzler said Yaacoub’s plight showcases the weaknesses with some of the relief funds. Even though some of the more severely damaged buildings have insurance, Kanzler said getting payouts isn’t an automatic process. And that can have major consequences for businesses like the New York Grill.
“You’re having lunch. As you sit at their table, eat their wonderful food looking out at five burned out buildings. And that’s not what people want to experience,” Kanzler said . “Yes, insurance may ultimately cover that. Maybe it only covers half of it. But at the end of the day, it’s going to do so many, many, many months from now. And in the meantime, New York Grill did its rehabilitation. It cleaned up its lot. It can’t force its buildings around it to do so.”
There are other issues: Many of the businesses took no-interest loans in August when rioting was less severe. Few are interested in going into more debt when they don’t have a steady income stream to pay the money back.
And more importantly, Kanzler said, the money being offered to the businesses just isn’t enough – especially since some companies sustained tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage.
“If this had been a natural disaster, federal money would have come in and other money would have come in,” Kanzler. “That’s not happening here. And that’s going to be – unless it happens – the fatal flaw with recovery effort individually by these business owners or by the community. They may get their doors back opened. But that’s not going to bring the people back.”
“And if the people that do the shopping, that buy the tires, that heat the fire, that purchase the groceries, that visit the doctor – if they don’t come back, then all the individual efforts to rebuild will be for naught,” he added.
Reaching for more
When asked about concerns that the relief funds aren’t impactful enough, Crim said that his group is moving expeditiously to try to get more resources.
In addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars from St. Louis County to help demolished burned-out buildings, Crim said his organization is working with the state to receive U.S. Housing and Urban Development funds that could help Ferguson and Dellwood.
“We also want to make sure that those businesses continue to operate and thrive in this area. They provide vibrancy to the area,” Crim said. “When you’re driving down West Florissant, you see that there’s a lot of traffic. We want that traffic to continue and to have customers shopping at those businesses. But we also recognize that beyond what’s happening now, in terms of getting those businesses reopened and continuing to employ the people, we want them to grow.”
Crim said his fund could provide about $300,000 more in no-interest loans and some grants to businesses. Zoll said the Reinvest North County fund still has about $300,000 to distribute.
But Zoll said more needs to be done.
“I’m going to be very frank with you: It’s not enough,” Zoll said. “We need the state of Missouri to step up and really come in and help the small business corridor that has been so dramatically impacted in a truly significant and sustainable manner.”
Kanzler said the state, in particular, should step up, especially because the National Guard decided against protecting businesses from looters and arsonists in November. He added “many of the businesses are considering their options for litigation against the state for that very reason.”
“The people along West Florissant, the people along the community genuinely had an absolute right to be protected. They were promised they would be protected. They had that right,” Kanzler said. “To completely abdicate that responsibility the way the governor did and allow people to run wild down there – to burn the buildings, to loot, to really turn it into a war zone after having said we will protect you ... The state has obligation.”
Asked in February about whether the state did enough to protect businesses that were damaged or destroyed, Gov. Jay Nixon replied: “There’s no amount of law enforcement that’s going to stop when you’ve got automatic weapons shooting off and being doing what was going on there.”
“Those buildings and businesses will be rebuilt,” Nixon said. “We will support those communities to do that. For example, the $2.5 million that we moved to make sure we get West Florissant planned. The 2,000 of summer jobs we talked about here. The millions of dollars of private investment were working to make sure that it moves forward in the area. But to say that night we should have had a larger and broader gunfight – that would not have solved any problems.”
For her part, Café Natasha’s Bahrami visited Ferguson and Dellwood after the Nov. 24 riots. She said, “My heart went for them.”
She wants policymakers to pick up the pace of recovery efforts. After all, she said, the fate of her fellow business owners may depend on such urgency.
“We were lucky it didn’t happen like that. But I think that policymakers’ job is to take care of them – to pay them to build the buildings and businesses,” Bahrami said. “Everybody needs to get together to let those businesses get running again. It’s good for the neighborhood. It’s good for St. Louis. It brings the crime down because it gets more kids to work in those neighborhoods.”
“I think they should get on with it as fast as possible instead of finding excuses,” she added.