Small businesses have crucial role in their communities

Up until the last few weeks, not many people outside of St. Louis had heard of Ferguson, Missouri.

The tiny municipality has become not just the site of a police shooting and protests, but the epicenter of critical social issues facing our nation. I was born in Columbia, Missouri, and lived and owned a business in St. Louis, making the images of the shooting, looting and police response deeply personal and troubling.

Caught in the middle of these massive social rifts are the business owners in the community. Beyond the swirl of macro issues including structural racism, economic inequity and underfunded public schools, individuals and families work to build their own piece of the American dream as entrepreneurs. The events of the past week have caught dozens of small businesses in a conflict that threatens their very survival.

Overshadowed by recent events, the economic outlook for Ferguson and the surrounding communities was looking brighter. Rebecca Zoll is the president and CEO of North County Incorporated, a regional development organization representing businesses and communities in the forty-seven different municipalities in North St. Louis County. According to Zoll, “Things are starting to look up in North County. While we may lag behind some of the coastal areas, we were starting to see real economic improvements with new jobs, community revitalization and investment in infrastructure.”

She went onto add, “Ironically the parking lot where the police were staging their response is a brand new commercial development that replaced a blighted shopping center. The new development brought in large retailers like Target and Starbucks, but also provided opportunities for local clothing stores and restaurants to thrive.”

Express Scripts, Emerson Electronics and Boeing have recently added jobs in the area helping to fuel an economic resurgence. Properties in foreclosure have dropped by over 80 percent, but the unemployment rate continues to be above national and local averages. Minorities in particular face daunting challenges with employment, an African American in St. Louis county is four times more likely to be unemployed than the county-wide average.

Community owned businesses are crucial to bringing jobs and economic vitality back to Ferguson and the thousands of communities like it around the nation. “If you look at the buildings near the demonstrations many of them are old, but they are all full of commercial tenants.” Zoll went on to say. “Ferguson is a place where the community depends on its locally owned businesses, and they depend on the community.”

Like many people I have asked “What can I do to make a difference?” particularly for those caught in the middle of the conflict. The Reinvest North County Fund has been created by regional consortia including North County Incorporated, the St. Louis Regional Business Council and local foundations. The purpose of the fund is to provide immediate relief to small business affected by recent events including funds to repair damage, replace lost or spoiled inventory, and to help cover disruptions in operations.

An inclusive community allocation panel has been created to evaluate applications and disperse funds. As of last week, over $50,000 has been pledged for the fund.

If you own a business and want to help your fellow entrepreneurs, consider a donation to the fund. You can find more information at www.northstlouiscounty.com.

Ryan Davis is the dean of Business and Applied Technology at Everett Community College. Write him at rydavis@everettcc.edu.

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