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Business owners say: Don't judge Ferguson 'on the mistakes or mishaps of a few'

Joshura Davis joined "St. Louis on the Air" in studio.
Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

Since last August, local business owners have provided the nation with an alternative narrative of Ferguson and neighboring Dellwood.

Shuttered after peaceful protests turned riotous, Ferguson businesses nonetheless committed to reopening and continuing to serve the community. Some became de facto community centers, where politicians, protesters, and locals gathered to eat, talk, and commiserate.

A year later, those businesses along West Florissant are better able to gauge how Ferguson’s status as a poster city for racial segregation and police brutality has affected their livelihoods. “St. Louis on the Air” touched base with business owners in the community and got their take on what has and has not changed since last August.

Joshura Davis is the owner of Best Insurance and Always Love and Care, an in-home care service. He is also chairman of the new Dellwood-Ferguson West Florissant Business Association; it’s like a think tank, he explains, for the small business owners of the area who need a voice in discussions about reform and rebuilding.

“A big part of the association is to get the businesses primarily along the Dellwood and West Florissant corridor to come to the table and get all of our ideas together,” he said. These meetings of the minds are important now, he says, because business is down for most shops along the corridor by as much as 40 percent.

The problem is not lack of traffic, but lack of interest: people drive down West Florissant to stop, get out, and take photos, but don’t actually enter shops. It’s tourism—curiosity about the community, Davis said. But not the kind that leads to profits.

Davis’ offices are located on the second floor of the building that houses the 911 Hair Salon, damaged both last year and this past week. He is also close to where Tyrone Harris allegedly shot at, and was shot by, police. So while his space hasn’t borne the brunt of the damage, it does hit close to home.

For that reason, Davis was in favor of the state of emergency issued on Monday by county executive Steve Stenger. It was the right move, he said, to assure businesses that they would be protected by the County.

“I think people get restless, or they think there’s an opportunity to get something from nothing,” he said of the destruction. “I really don’t know why that happened.”

John Zisser, whose Zisser Tire and Auto was vandalized twice last year, has seen no damage this year at his shop on the north end of West Florissant; but he, too, reports that business is down—on any given day, between 10 to 40 percent.

Regardless of his personal losses, Zisser believes that the region is making progress and, for what it’s worth, that progress is happening quickly—which makes this year’s round of violence along West Florissant dispiriting.

“It’s just kind of depressing for me. It’s just difficult to deal with—you know, we’ve come this far,” Zisser said. “You see changes that have been requested, that are needed, and then we go through this whole thing over again.”

Even so, Zisser can’t see himself leaving Dellwood. “I’m a building owner. I’ve been there since ’87 and in the area since ’84. And it’s just not that easy to say, okay, I’ll leave, you know?”

The main focus of rebuilding business, then, should be getting people to actually come into the shops, Davis said. Simple things, like improving signs and storefronts, can create the kind of ‘curb appeal’ that encourages potential customers. And good, friendly customer service, reminding people that Ferguson is as warm and welcoming as it may appear to be fraught, will also help.

“I think right now we sell it on the history of Ferguson,” Davis said: its long-established neighborhoods and successful people, businesses, and community initiatives. He’s encouraged by the openness and frequency of community dialogue since last August. “The biggest thing is to not judge Ferguson on the mistakes or mishaps of a few.”

Like Zisser, Davis can’t imagine moving his business. “I’m dedicated to Ferguson. Ferguson’s been good to my family,” he said, but noted that the damage done to businesses has nonetheless been threatening. “That’s our livelihood, that’s our way of life. We don’t have an alternative.”

The violence and tension that has been locally and nationally spotlighted, he said, is only a small part of life in Ferguson; and it does not make the city special in any way. “Like anything else, we have our problems and things to work out.”

“I’ve been there 25 years,” Davis said. “And I plan, God willing, to be there another 25 years.”

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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