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This Sunday marks one year since Ferguson, Mo. erupted in protest after a white police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black man. As the city prepares for the anniversary, businesses are bracing. Last year, many of them were vandalized and set on fire when the officer who shot Brown was not indicted. NPR's Cheryl Corley traveled to Ferguson to see how businesses have been working to rebuild.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: There are two main business districts in Ferguson, one in the downtown area along North and South Florissant Avenue, and the other on West Florissant, not far from where Michael Brown was killed by then-police Officer Darren Wilson. That's the area where I meet Sheila Sweeney and Erica Henderson so we can drive around and check out what's been happening with businesses.
Oh, well, thanks for doing this, this is great.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Sure.
CORLEY: And where did you come from?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Chicago.
CORLEY: Chicago. OK.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So not far.
CORLEY: Sweeney is the interim CEO of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, and Henderson is a vice president. She went door-to-door early on after the looting and vandalism last year to see what businesses needed.
ERICA HENDERSON: As we get up in here - slow down just a little bit, Sheila - so these are some of the areas where some of these businesses were impacted.
CORLEY: Along West Florissant Avenue there are some empty lots where once-thriving businesses were located. Five buildings in Ferguson and several more in neighboring Dellwood were set on fire during the unrest after Michael Brown's death. Nearly all have been demolished and most are being rebuilt. Sheila Sweeney points out barbershops, cell phone stores and others that suffered less damage.
SHEILA SWEENEY: I think there's a general sense of growth that most of them feel. Some are still obviously in need of assistance and a customer base, you know, is kind of starting to grow back, so it's all going forward.
CORLEY: The Partnership, banks and the state have given about three quarters of a million dollars to more than 70 businesses in the region, either grants or loans, some at 0 percent interest. St. Louis County is funding a matching grant program to help businesses pay the cost of fixing-up their facades.
At Sam's Meat Market, there's an open sign out front, but the owner doesn't want to talk. The grocery store sits back off the road. It was looted and vandalized at least three times during the unrest. Marquess Mull, who often cleans the floors of area businesses, says he expected the market to reopen after it was looted the first time.
MARQUESS MULL: But the second and third time (laughter), woah, it could take a lot out of a person, so I know it took a lot of him just to really come back and get that mindset to come back. But this store is definitely important to the community.
CORLEY: But others don't feel as positive about doing business in Ferguson. Dionneshea Forland has been in business for 10 years running Missouri Home Health and Therapy out of an office building on West Florissant. She had to move out in August and again in November of last year. Vandals stole computers and office furniture. Her clientele dropped because therapists weren't comfortable coming to the area. Her client base is slowly growing, but Forland is still moving out.
DIONNESHEA FORLAND: I think businesses are having a hard time with coming back to where they were at before the incident had happened. I think the visual when you ride down West Florissant is not a good visual.
CORLEY: Ferguson Mayor James Knowles says the city is making progress and even attracting new business. He says perceptions about West Florissant are caused in part by people he says are taking advantage of a situation.
JAMES KNOWLES: It's very difficult when, you know, you have a group of 30 kids that show up on the lot of McDonald's, scream, yell, intimidate people, scare people. And they claim that that's their right under the Constitution to do it. And it has nothing to do with any movement.
CORLEY: Knowles says the good news is that Ferguson will have more businesses overall than last year, among them, a call center that a managed health care company plans to open, creating up to 200 jobs, and Starbucks will locate a shop on West Florissant.
JEROME JENKINS: You ready?
CORLEY: I'm ready.
JENKINS: All right.
CORLEY: We're heading over to Cathy's Kitchen in downtown Ferguson, a diner Jerome Jenkins opened with his wife, Cathy, two years ago. Jenkins says the crowds are good at breakfast and lunch, slower at night.
JENKINS: People still are unsure if they should come out after five.
CORLEY: While some view Ferguson as a city scarred by violence, Jenkins calls it a goldmine.
JENKINS: So Ferguson will not fail, and we will rise out of the ashes from a riot. Not because we have this great idea, but because we are surrounded by economic development.
CORLEY: Other business leaders say they just want people to recognize all the work that's been done in the past year to help bring the community back. Cheryl Corley, NPR News.
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