Businesses In Joplin, Mo., Find Economic Opportunity

fromKSMU

Anthony Owens (right) repairs the roof of a tornado-damaged home with James Davis (left) and Dwain Payne on July 30 in Joplin, Mo. All three men came up from Mobile, Ala., looking for work after the May 22 tornado that devastated Joplin, killing 160 people and destroying 7,500 homes and as many as 500 businesses.

hide captionAnthony Owens (right) repairs the roof of a tornado-damaged home with James Davis (left) and Dwain Payne on July 30 in Joplin, Mo. All three men came up from Mobile, Ala., looking for work after the May 22 tornado that devastated Joplin, killing 160 people and destroying 7,500 homes and as many as 500 businesses.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Joplin Before The Tornado

On May 22, Joplin, Mo., was devastated by a massive tornado that cut a path of destruction nearly a mile wide and nearly 7 miles long within the city limits, half the length of the overall storm path. Nearly 8,000 structures were affected, and thousands of volunteers and the Army Corps of Engineers continue to work on relief efforts in Joplin. While many former residents had to move, here's a snapshot of Joplin before the storm:

50,150: Population in 2010

35: Median age

16.5 percent: Blue collar

$57, 449: Median income

87.6: Percentage — White

4.5: Percentage — Hispanic or Latino

3.3: Percentage — Black or African American

1.8: Percentage — American Indian and Alaska Native

35,566: Median Household Income

64: Percent in labor force

19.9: Percentage of population with a college degree

— Tasnim Shamma

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

It's been nearly four months since a tornado slammed into Joplin, Mo., destroying about one-third of the city. More than 525 businesses were in the direct path of the storm.

Now, as they rebuild, business owners are seeing some opportunities in the wake of their tremendous losses.

'Can Do' Attitude

After the tornado hit, the building that housed the Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy in Joplin was destroyed. A safe used to store narcotics was one of the only things to survive, and even it got knocked over by the powerful winds.

But within two days, pharmacy owner David Starrett held the keys to a new location for his business, a building originally built for installing car phones.

To convert this space into a pharmacy, donated shelves arrived from a pharmacist more than three hours away, and volunteers pitched in, allowing Starrett to fill prescriptions from his new location less than one week after the tornado struck. He says the new location has brought him some new opportunities, even though many of his previous customers left town.

"We've had 75, 80 families being displaced. They've had to move to Neosho, Springfield, Carthage, places where they can't use me," Starrett says. "The positive thing about our new location is we've had new faces. Even though I'm just a mile south of where I was, I've gained more than I lost."

Businesses in the storm's path included some big-box retailers like Home Depot and Walmart, and some mom-and-pop stores. A major hospital was also decimated.

Rob O'Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, says he expects more than 400 of the businesses to reopen by the end of this year. He says the international news coverage of the tornado and Joplin's quick response has helped attract businesses to the area.

"We've heard from many of them that they see that as a big plus," O'Brian says. "It's a big difference when they know that that 'can do' attitude can kick in, even in the face of a severe natural disaster."

Trading Scissors For Saws

Along 26th Street in Joplin, there is an open, littered field to the west, and off in the distance, the hulking remains of St. John's Hospital. To the east, there is an elementary school that is still standing, but in shambles. To the south, however, is a brand new brick building. It's the new home of Cut Loose, a hair salon. The original building on this site was destroyed when the May 22 tornado ripped through this part of the city.

"It's amazing some of the things that we lost, including a brick building and washer and dryer — but we did recover fingernail polish," says Cut Loose owner Diana Collins.

After the tornado, Collins and her staff traded scissors for saws to cut up limbs and other debris covering their salon. By July 1, they were cutting hair in a new building on the old foundation, complete with a new floor plan.

A full comeback may take some time, even though there's now a multimillion-dollar private fund that's offering no-interest and low-interest loans for new and expanding businesses.

Even though most Joplin businesses reopened quickly, there are still some major players in the process of rebuilding, like the new hospital, scheduled to open in 2014. So even with some new opportunities, there are many challenges — and the community may have to wait before they see a lasting economic recovery.

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