POLITICS
12/12/2014 11:39 am ET Updated Dec 12, 2014

Ferguson Businesses Try To Rebuild After Protests

Mariah Stewart

FERGUSON, Mo. -- Ten businesses here were completely destroyed by fire and several others were vandalized on Nov. 24, following protests over a grand jury decision not to bring charges in the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. The McDonald's on West Florissant Avenue, a hot spot for protests since Brown was killed in August, was closed for over two weeks due to damage.

On Wednesday, it finally reopened. Standing outside during a smoke break, two employees talked about how glad they were to finally be returning to work, and how tough it had been to go without pay.

"Yeah, it kind of messed with our Christmas money, but we're going to earn it back," said one employee, who didn't give his name because McDonald's had told workers not to talk to the media.

The McDonald's gained attention in August amid the protests that flared up after Brown's death, with police officers unleashing tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators just outside the restaurant's doors. The restaurant quickly became a haven for mothers, children, protesters, reporters and police.

Lisa McComb, a McDonald's spokeswoman, told The Huffington Post that the restaurant reopened "thanks to the hard work of staff and restaurant crew." While repairs were underway, she said, McDonald's "did offer employees the opportunity to pick up hours in other restaurants."

By Wednesday, the windows that were smashed in November had been replaced. Wooden boards remained nailed to the front of the restaurant and a door. The restaurant's television, which was looted, was still missing, though the mount remained on the wall.

"It feels good we got the spot back," a McDonald's customer said, before ordering a quarter-pounder with Big Mac sauce.

The morning after businesses were set ablaze, many employees who had lost their sources of income went to look at the remains of their workplaces. Nothing but a few children's toys remained of the former Family Dollar store.

Examining the smoky remnants that day, an employee stood in shock. With his hands resting on his head, he nodded in disapproval. "I spent four years of my life at this place," the employee said.

Workers at several nearby Family Dollar stores said no employees from the West Florissant location had been transferred to their locations. The corporate office did not respond to a request for comment about whether the company was working to get its employees new jobs.

A few days later, Dennis Rose, 29, an installer sales specialist at O'Reilly Auto Parts in nearby Dellwood, stood by his workplace's remains. "My store looks like a crumpled-up soda," Rose said as he took pictures of the rubble.

Rose was fortunate enough to be transferred to a nearby store immediately after the fire. "It's the holiday season," Rose said. "This is when we're expected to buy things for our families and kids and you shouldn't have this hanging over you."

All of the employees from the West Florissant location have been successfully transferred to nearby locations, according to Mark Merz, a company spokesman. "A big part of O'Reilly's culture is our team members," Merz said. "They're our most valuable asset. We were fortunate enough to have other stores in the area that could accommodate them."

Merz couldn't say whether the company will rebuild its Dellwood location, stating simply that the store is "damaged beyond immediate repair."

Rose has worked in the area for two years and said Ferguson and Dellwood felt like home. "I live in Illinois, but I come here and work every day. This is my community," he said. "The news was talking about how riots can hang over an area. I'm hoping we're stronger than that and build back up."

Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander recently announced the start of #FergusonRebuild, a movement that will provide nongovernmental grants to businesses in the community that were destroyed.

"We have a lot of work to do in Ferguson and the surrounding area, but one of the first things we need to focus on is helping North County businesses that were damaged, destroyed or burglarized since August return to serving their community," Kander said in a statement.

Towns that have experienced intense protests often have a difficult time recovering. In the late 1960s, racially charged riots rocked both Plainfield and Newark, New Jersey. Many residents subsequently moved away, and since then the communities have dealt with high levels of poverty and unemployment.

Seretha Billups, 44, a Dellwood resident and an employee of Feel Beauty Supply, said business has been bad ever since the August protests. "Revenue has been extremely down. We don't have nearly as much business as we used to have. It's dragging," she said.

Billups thinks her business is suffering because people from other parts of St. Louis County view Ferguson, and especially the West Florissant area, in a negative light.

"People on the other side of town don't even want to come near Ferguson. They just want to stay away," she said. "People need to know that we are still here and we still want to have them as customers. We want them to come in this area and not fear anything."

Businesses that don't have physical damage from the protests still face issues in the aftermath, according to Crystal Johnson, the owner of Creative Designs Gift Shop.

"People don't want to hear that your business is in Ferguson or better yet on West Florissant," said Johnson. To keep her doors open, Johnson has offered to ship items to customers' homes and has relied heavily on social media to post images of her merchandise.

Johnson thinks the community should hold a block party or "shop local" day to show support for the businesses. "Now that everything has happened, the ones that are doing the most suffering are minorities and small businesses," Johnson said. "We rally all over the world for this, but right here, where it's happened, we're suffering."

Ryan J. Reilly and Hunter Stuart contributed reporting.

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