Can St. Louis Business Owners Help Push For Systemic Change?
Jeniece Andrews invested her life savings — and her family’s money — into an upscale boutique in Ferguson called Hidden Treasures. Attached to a Little Caesar’s restaurant, the store sold jewelry, clothing and accessories to a diverse clientele throughout Ferguson.
But late last month, after a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, chaos engulfed the city of Ferguson. Andrews' store was one of many buildings that burned in a frenetic night of looting and arson. Thanks to a fireproof protective wall, the interior of Little Caesar’s actually held up pretty well — as evidenced by well-preserved soda bottles in a refrigerator.
Andrews wasn’t as lucky. Her store was a total loss. On the Wednesday after the riots, you could still smell the fragrant musk of burnt wood and smoke with each and every step.
“I got here and I just broke down crying,” said Andrews, referring to the moment she first saw her store aflame. “And what you can see left here, all that’s left of it is pieces of broken glass, piles and piles and piles and piles of nothing but ashes. And dirt. And just debris left from the building.”
“There’s nothing left here anymore,” she added.
Like other business owners in Ferguson and Dellwood, Andrews set up a fundraising page online to help her get back in business. But she could potentially benefit from a no-interest loan program organized in part by the St. Louis Regional Chamber.
“Nobody should have any fear factor and they should know that we will get as much relief as possible,” said Joe Reagan, the Chamber’s president and CEO. “We’re talking to all of our partners about the need for significantly more aid to businesses as if this were a tornado or a natural disaster to stabilize the area and get these entrepreneurs the support they need to get back up and running.”
The Chamber’s work isn’t happening in a vacuum. The St. Louis Business Council’s Reinvest North County Fund announced on Thursday they’re awarding $119,500 to support businesses and school districts. And some key players within the St. Louis business community promised relief to riot-stricken businesses as well as millions of dollars to help bolster the region’s poorest communities.
But can those efforts make a difference? At least two professors with experience in community building efforts noted that a high-profile effort to rebuild Los Angeles after the riots in the early 1990s there fell flat. They worry that big companies are more focused on philanthropy than with empowering communities.
“I think it gets them out of their comfort space,” said Todd Swanstrom, a political science professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “The standard operating procedure over the years has been to fund social service projects in communities. And to get involved in community organizing is to literally give up some control.”
“Because obviously what you’re saying is the agenda will be set by the community — not by the corporation,” he added.
Some of the region’s largest companies have made big commitments since Michael Brown was shot and killed in early August. Some have pledged money to non-profit groups, while others promised to expand their footprint within north St. Louis County.
Some of the commitments include:
- Centene said it will build a facility in Ferguson. The company also pledged to hire people from within the city.
- Monsanto pledged $1 million to several non-profit groups, including the United Way of Greater St. Louis, the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis and Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.
- Ferguson-based Emerson donated millions of dollars to numerous organizations. The company will fund scholarships and employment efforts throughout north St. Louis County.
“Emerson has tried to take a leadership position, primarily because our headquarters are in Ferguson and have been for almost 75 years,” said Patrick Sly, an executive vice president with Emerson. “And we have been somewhat successful in getting the rest of the business community involved.”
During an interview earlier this year with St. Louis Public Radio, Centene CEO Michael Neidorff said “it’s not words, it’s actions that create the credibility that I’m talking about.”
“I’m hoping this is a start,” Neidorff said. “It's really important that we focus on how this is going to give youth jobs and a chance to learn, develop and be successful. If we can focus on the good and say the ‘past is the past, let’s look ahead.’"
Rich McClure — the former chairman of Unigroup and one of two chairmen of the Ferguson Commission — said the “business community is very interested and must be committed to see this as a broad, wide-ranging set of challenges and issues and to engage in addressing those issues.”
“And I believe they will,” McClure said. “I believe it’s important not only for the economic health for the region; it’s important for the moral health of the region.”
The Los Angeles Story
These commitments may seem pretty substantial. But Peter Drier heard similar promises after his city experience unrest and destruction in the early 1990s, following the acquittal of several police officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King.
Dreier is a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He recalls the business community there setting up an organization called “Rebuild L.A.” as a response of sorts to rioting that destroyed parts of the city.
“The idea was to get the business community to invest in the neighborhoods that had been the epicenter of the riots,” Dreier said. “And that meant grocery stores and retail outlets and a couple of shopping malls that never quite got off the ground.”
When the unwieldy group’s promises didn’t materialize, Dreier said it was up to other groups to step up. He said labor unions, activist groups and environmentalists became forces for change within the city.
“There’s been a lot more efforts to raise wages for the low-wage workers, to clean up the environment, to provide more affordable housing,” Dreier said. “And that has come from the bottom up, not from the top down. And it’s made the business community more responsible, although some have done it kicking and screaming.”
UMSL professor Swanstrom said that some big corporations tend to invest in result-oriented projects — such an effort to shelter the homeless or provide book bags to schoolchildren. They may be less inclined to invest in, say, programs that teach neighborhoods how to conduct meetings or vie for funds themselves.
“In case of the events of Ferguson, I think the corporate community in St. Louis needs to think more broadly about what generated these issues in the first place,” Swanstrom said. “It is certainly fine to have some service-oriented projects that help people in the community cope with their condition. But we need more forward-thinking projects that address the problems of rising concentrated poverty, weak institutions, fiscal stress and political empowerment.”
Added Dreier: “What Ferguson and the other cities around St. Louis that have similar problems of poverty and racial segregation need is not more charity. They need more justice. They need more jobs.
“When it comes to sort of the root causes and the underlying grievances of any urban riot — or in this case a suburban-urban riot — it’s really mostly about jobs and poverty,” Drier said. “It’s probably about racism and racial profiling and discrimination. But the root cause has to do with long-held grievances about being poor and left behind.”
The Corporate Response
For his part, Emerson's Sly said that his company plans to give beyond its initial investment — which he said now exceeded $6 million.
“Of course it’s going to take a lot more than that — and it’s not just money,” Sly said. “One of the ideas that we have is a business incubator where we can use our training center on campus and our expertise to go out and help businesses. Not only help them repair the damage that’s been done, but also help them get restarted and give them the professional advice they need to be successful.”
The St. Louis Regional Chamber's Reagan said the business community wants to tackle long-standing problems in the region — including concentrated poverty and struggling schools. He said numerous people in the business community are engaged including some that have been selected to be part of the Ferguson Commission — including Sly and McClure.
“Our organization did not push for that simply for more studies,” Reagan said. “But more to, as diligently and as transparently as possible, bring us together around the shared reality and the recommendations of what we have to do together as a community to change the course that we’re on.”
Reagan said the stakes are just too high for the business community to be on the sidelines.
“We believed that there is a shared reality that we have not formed here in St. Louis,” Reagan said. “We have to be able to get on the same page and say ‘This is what the situation is around jobs, around socioeconomic gaps, around education gaps, around despair that people have and around policing.'”
“All of us need all of us,” he added.
A Prayer For Revival
As Jeniece Andrews was wrapping up her interview with this reporter, a woman named Jackie pulled up to Andrew's burnt out store. She embraced Andrews and joined her in a prayer for revival.
Andrews said she possesses a deep faith that her business can be resurrected. But she isn’t sure if a no-interest loan from the Regional Chamber is right for her at this point, because it would place her in more debt than she was in before the fire. It’s possible that some business groups could provide grants that would help her get back on her feet.
“We’re not saying that someone owes us something,” Andrews said. “But you know, we were put in this state because of civil unrest. I would just appreciate it on behalf of not just myself, but the businesses that are suffering. We know all of the businesses didn’t suffer, because a lot of them are back up and running.”
“But like me, I’m down,” Andrews said. “I don’t even have any income coming in right now.”
Andrews knows the climb back won’t be easy. But she's committed to setting up shop again.
And getting people like Andrews to succeed could be a small test for the St. Louis business community in the midst of some very great challenges.
“A lot of mistakes that I made when I first started, it made me better,” Andrews said. “I believe that this happening to me is not my end. But it’s actually opening up the door to bigger things — so I can be able to serve my community.”
St. Louis Public Radio's Maria Altman contributed to this story.