By David Weidner, MarketWatch
FERGUSON, Mo. (MarketWatch) — This town is already cleaning up. The streets are litter-free. The windows are being repaired.
Now the question is, can this small community be able to draw new business, and will anyone stay?
And it’s a question not just for Ferguson but for St. Louis as a whole. Negative attention from more than two weeks of protests over the death of Michael Brown brought the region’s deep-seated racial, economic and social problems into the national spotlight. And not in a good way.
“We’ve been on the front page,” said Denny Coleman, chief executive of the St. Louis Economic Council, which seeks investment in the region. “We’ve been portrayed in the national and international press in an unfavorable light.”
Looting. Violence. Racial discord. Poverty. Is this a place where anyone would want to open a business, build a factory or warehouse or launch a startup?
“There are long-term thinkers and short-term thinkers,” said Charlie Davis, owner of the Ferguson Burger Bar & More, a restaurant at the center of the protests. To Davis, the short-term thinkers are the looters and protestors who seem willing to do anything to get immediate results. Long-term thinkers know the potential of the area.
“Do I think we’re going to lose business?” Davis said. “No. The long-term thinkers know this is a good place. People are going to spend money here.”
Others are less optimistic. Coleman believes Ferguson and St. Louis will have to first quell the violence and confrontation that marked the early protests. Then the community needs to take a hard look at the underlying issues, repair the skill gap that exists in the workforce and build trust between the residents and the police. Finally, there needs to be image repair.
There is some evidence that St. Louis is already engaging in the second step.
“I’ve never seen the community have the conversation that it’s having right now,” said Benjamin Ola Akande, dean of the business school at nearby Webster University. “People know this isn’t a Ferguson problem, it’s a St. Louis problem.”
Akande has been looking into communities damaged by unrest. He found two National Bureau of Economic Research studies that showed the negative economic impact of urban riots on African-Americans actually made things worse in the long run. This trend is an especially acute problem for Ferguson.
After the unrest, there was a decline in median black family income of about 9% in cities where disturbances occurred, sometimes over a period longer than a decade. They found about a 4% increase in the unemployment rate of black males during this period. And they also found that the riots led to a significant drop in the value of black-owned homes in those cities.
There are building blocks. A majority of Ferguson residents are employed. The median annual household income is $37,000, but is actually above the national and county median of $47,000, when stripping out the 25% of residents here who live below the poverty rate. Emerson Electric Co. /zigman2/quotes/200181610/composite EMR -0.02% , the Fortune 500 company based in Ferguson, has pledged to play a central role in helping the community recover.
Even more promising is the quality of some of the people. I met Christina and Robert Britt on West Florissant Avenue. The Britts are Ferguson residents, African-American and employed. Christina Britt is passionate about working with local youth, creating a place — it’s on Facebook for now — where academic and athletic achievers can connect.
“Michael Brown has become an icon,” Christina told me. “He’s got people focused on what’s happening here.”
Hers was a sentiment echoed by Shellena Eskridge, a resident of St. John, Mo., about 15 miles northwest of St. Louis. Eskridge came to Ferguson last week carrying a sign that read: “Our youth need help. Their paths to successful futures are often blocked!”
Eskridge said the St. Louis region hasn’t addressed the lack of opportunity that face young, African-Americans like Brown, the shooting victim. “It’s so much bigger than one youth,” she said. “We need role models. We need an entire change for the better. We need economic change.”
St. Louis, with its well-known class, racial and economic disparity, has let problems simmer for decades. There’s been a lot of talk among business and community leaders. There have been efforts to create job-training programs, such as the Metro Education Training Center and the Working Families Success Network .
But a bigger, bolder move is needed. And it’s a task made difficult by the bad publicity. But it’s also made the job easier. No one can overlook the forces that have kept economic growth out of the region and, in turn, led to dangerous conditions.
“We are at a convergent moment,” Webster University’s Akande said. That’s when “separate things come together to transform us before we even want to. It’s Ferguson now, but it’s also a moment for so many other communities in the United States. Minorities don’t have power. There’s double-digit unemployment. This is the legacy of the Great Recession.”
It’s a turning point that’s going to require work on the part of community leaders and local businesses. It’s going to require a hard look in the mirror for some residents. It’s going to take a leap of faith by investors. But it has to happen now. The Ferguson protests will either be a new low or the point where things turned around.
“If we don’t seize it, we have a bigger problem,” Akande said. “There’s going to be a permanent division in society. Businesses may start thinking St. Louis is not a destination point.”