'I'm Lost Now': Can Ferguson's Businesses Ever Rise From Rubble?

It will be a quiet Black Friday on Ferguson's West Florissant Avenue. The modest commercial strip that runs through the heart of the embattled city has been devastated by rioting and looting. Now, a haze of doubt hangs over many workers and merchants there who wonder whether their businesses can survive the terrible toll — and the fear of possible uprisings to come.

Some retailers, like Mohamad Yaacoub, have been slammed twice by violence. His store, Sam's Meat Market, was looted in August after unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. On Monday night, arsonists nearly burned that market to the ground.

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"To be honest with you, I'm lost now," Yaacoub told NBC News after touring the charred shell that once was Sam's. The exterior brick walls are the only salvageable chunks. The roof is gone. "I'm not sure money-wise. Money-wise, it's just too hard.

"I had to borrow $700 to buy some wood, just to put the boards together to close up where (the rioters) came in from, to close the building. It's just too much, you know," added Yaacoub, who carries insurance coverage for fire damage but isn't certain when or how much he might be paid to begin a rebuild.

At a strip mall two doors down from the remnants of Sam's, looters smashed the glass at the Clip Appeal salon then hurled a Molotov cocktail inside. Two local men grabbed plastic water bottles and dashed inside the shop to try to douse the flames, said Leeanna Moore, a 22-year employee.

While Moore cheered those heroics, she admitted she hasn't decided if she will ever return to work at the salon, which also carries insurance.

St. Louis restaurant Rooster boarded up its windows and opened for business on Tuesday, after it was attacked during nighttime riots.
Source: Kara Bailey
St. Louis restaurant Rooster boarded up its windows and opened for business on Tuesday, after it was attacked during nighttime riots.

"The fear bothers me right now, just the fact that we have to go back down in the area. We never felt that way before," Moore said. "That's why I think a lot of businesses won't return. They'll have the fear of: What if something else happens? The same thing could happen.

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"There may be a bunch of store closings after this because, I mean, with the community being so disrupted as it as right now, what really do we have left?" Moore said. "Are they going to rebuild? No, we don't think so."

Several national franchises were torched as well, including a Little Caesars Pizza, a Walgreens, an AutoZone, and a Public Storage facility, some of the estimated 25 structure fires in Ferguson. Among those chains, only Public Storage responded to a question from NBC News about whether the business would be rebuilt.

"We haven't been able to fully evaluate that yet," said Shawn Weidmann, chief operating officer of Public Storage. "We don't know the extent of the damage because it's actually being treated as a crime scene."

Will one of the evaluations at Public Storage headquarters include whether or not to re-open that business in Ferguson?

"I don't want to comment on that," Weidmann said.

Nervous, exhausted merchants aren't the only Ferguson residents raising questions about the future of business in that St. Louis suburb.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said Tuesday that the "fabric of this community" had been "torn apart" by the violence. He added that many of the businesses affected "may never come back."

At a press briefing later Tuesday, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles was asked if city officials plan to talk directly with business owners to convince them it is safe to remain.

"We have already started that process since August," Knowles said. "Some of these businesses will have the opportunity to come back and (I) hope they maintain their businesses here in Ferguson."

But the collective, emotional damage caused by urban riots runs far deeper than that caused even by massive natural disasters, according to an academic study published in 2013.

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Researchers at colleges in Massachusetts and Illinois examined the financial aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which lasted six days after four LAPD officers were acquitted on charges of assault and excessive force, stemming from the videotaped arrest of motorist Rodney King.

During the 10 years that followed those riots, Los Angeles lost nearly $4 million in taxable sales, the study found. After violent civil uproars (versus natural disasters like hurricanes), municipal leaders generally struggle to lure new companies and to replenish community trust, the authors told Time magazine.

State and federal officials did come to Ferguson's business rescue in September. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon worked with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to make low-interest disaster loans available to merchants and nonprofit organizations in north St. Louis County.

That original SBA loan program for impacted Ferguson employers and shops also covers "the current civil unrest incidents in the area," said SBA spokeswoman Carol Chastang.

For some Ferguson business owners, like Yaacoub, the decision to try again is not personal. It's about a larger obligation they feel to their neighborhoods.

"All of my (six) workers have families and they want to live. But also, without me, this community will have no grocery store. They come to me for their eggs, milk, cereal, everything. A lot of old people walk to the store. A lot of people count on me," Yaacoub said.

"Everybody came into the store today and tell me, 'What we can do?' Even some customers tell me, 'Please don't take (the arson) like that. Just come back in business.' So I'll come back in business. But I need time to fix it. We don't want everybody to move. We don't want to make the community look like a ghost town."