At about noon on August 9, 2014, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo., Michael Brown, 18, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, 28, a white Ferguson police officer. The shooting sparked peaceful and violent protests over several days, and included vandalism and
looting. The response of area police in dealing with the protests was criticized by the media and politicians for insensitivity and a militarized posture.
On August 11, the FBI opened a civil rights investigation into the shooting.
Brown’s funeral was held on August 25, attended by an estimated 4,000 people.
On Sept. 5, the U. S. Department of Justice began a separate investigation of the Ferguson police force to examine whether officers engaged in racial profiling or showed a pattern of excessive force. The results of the investigation were released in a March 4, 2015 report which said that Ferguson police routinely discriminated against African Americans and applied racial stereotypes in a
“pattern or practice of unlawful conduct.”
On Nov. 24, 2014, the announcement that the St. Louis County grand jury would not indict
Officer Wilson was met with protests, some of them violent, in Ferguson and in 170 cities across the U.S. Several Ferguson businesses were looted, and fires were set by protesters.
On Nov. 29, Wilson resigned from the Ferguson police force, citing security concerns. On March 4, 2015, the U. S. Department of Justice cleared Wilson of civil rights violations in the shooting.
During this half a year of community turmoil, the usual job of the St. Louis Regional Chamber—making St. Louis a great place to live and work—was freighted with flayed community nerves and damaged businesses needing help.
When civil unrest erupted in Ferguson, the chamber had the leadership capacity and pre-existing relationships to make an immediate impact, speaking out publicly against the militarized police response, responding to national media, working behind the scenes to get state support, and stressing that St. Louis would not be defined by events, but rather the response to those events. Among the chamber’s actions:
The chamber set out to identify immediate and long-term needs of impacted Ferguson small business owners, the St. Louis business community, civic leaders, and the community at large. Chamber employees, including CEO Joe Reagan, walked Ferguson’s streets to reach out to small business owners and ascertain their needs. The chamber quickly established and staffed the Recovery STL Hotline to give business owners an additional vehicle through which they could convey needs, get questions answered, and connect with resources.
Seeing the need to bolster the capacity of the local economic development group in Ferguson, the chamber assigned Project Manager Greg Laposa to work on-site for three months, providing boots-on-the-ground support and organizing community forums to directly serve business owners in the impacted area, including:
Chamber leaders brought together government officials, civic leaders, regional corporation executives, and Ferguson community representatives to discuss regional priorities and create an effective forum for systemic change. The chamber also pursued the creation of a commission to help the community come to a shared reality of what happened and what needed to change. By engaging the right people at the right time, action plans took shape.
The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, the St. Louis Regional Chamber, North County, Inc., the State of Missouri, a collective of Missouri banks, and other organizations and businesses provided more than $1 million to support impacted businesses through the Small Business Relief Program. This fund provides zero-interest loans to businesses in impacted areas.
The chamber made large donations to the Reinvest North County Fund, led by North County Inc., that gives grants to businesses in need. We convened professional marketers and economic developers to create the STLForward.com website, and coordinated messaging to get fact-based, forward looking information to the public.
Many other initiatives with business, civic, elected, education and faith leaders continue in the effort to bring Ferguson and surrounding communities back to “normal.” Fresh voices and community leaders have emerged to join constructive discussions about our community.
To date, $749,000 in loans and grants have been distributed to 63 businesses through the Small Business Relief Program. Some of the businesses who originally received funding have reapplied and are receiving additional funding. The STL Together Fund extended an additional $26,000 in grant relief to 10 business owners, and conveyed messaging that the community cares about and is invested in their fate. Through these efforts small business owners in Ferguson accessed funds to rebuild, restock, and maintain their businesses at a time when damages and lack of consumer traffic could have resulted in businesses closing their doors for good.
The RecoverySTL Hotline offered a vehicle for much-needed communication during a crisis. Impacted business owners used this service to report problems, request assistance, and have someone to talk to. By staffing this service, the chamber gained invaluable insight into the problems being faced and acted as a conduit between those who needed help and those who wanted to help.
The listening forums offered a platform for additional, much-needed communication. Business owners had opportunities to express concerns and frustrations to community officials and leaders directly. Relief efforts were launched as a direct result of these interactions. The chamber’s participation in these activities—loaned labor, plan organization and execution, and trouble-shooting myriad issues—reinforced the chamber’s messaging that St. Louis is ONE region that stands together to face its challenges.
The recovery efforts led by the chamber reflect what is possible when the public and private sectors unite to address community issues. The St. Louis Regional Chamber is proud to stand among the leaders fighting for change and remains optimistic about the ongoing efforts to improve life in our region. “Business leaders can and should help guide public discussions about racial inequality,” said Joe Regan, president and CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber. “We have to have the conversation. This is a moral imperative, but it’s also an economic imperative.”
We learn and grow from these experiences. We know that there are important socioeconomic and race issues our region must address. We are committed to reaching out to each other and working, in a transparent, compassionate and inclusive way, to make St. Louis an inspiring example of equality and opportunity.
Download this article: Mobilizing on Multiple Fronts: When civil unrest erupted, the St. Louis Regional Chamber had the leadership capacity and pre-existing relationships to make an immediate impact. (3)