Renewed violence threatens fragile recovery in Missouri city

Renewed violence threatens fragile recovery in Missouri city
Police officials conduct an investigation in the Ferguson, Missouri neighborhood near the area of the overnight shooting of two police officers at the Ferguson Police Department on March 12, 2015. Two police officers shot overnight in the troubled Missouri city of Ferguson -- which for months has battled racial tensions -- were victims of an "ambush," police said Thursday.

USA - The violence that returned to Ferguson, Missouri, on Thursday threatens to trample a barely perceptible recovery as the town of 21,000 people struggles to rebuild after two spates of race-related unrest last year.

The shooting of two police officers and a subsequent manhunt in Ferguson on Thursday have relit tensions that erupted in the St. Louis suburb after the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white policeman Darren Wilson in August.

The shooting came as local businesses and home owners were showing the first timid signs of hope that Ferguson and the nearby suburbs of Dellwood, Jennings and Florissant can recover, seven months after demonstrations in the aftermath of the Brown shooting that shone a light on a litany of issues in this poor town, many arising from alleged racial bias.

The going is slow, but bulldozers are beginning to tear down some of the stores destroyed by fire along West Florissant Avenue, the worst-hit thoroughfare in the city left largely abandoned after violent protests and looting in November.

More than $650,000 in state and private funds have made their way to businesses that were looted, damaged and threatened with closure since August.

"Last night shows that things aren't over," said Sonya Roberts, owner of S&K's PX Market on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson.

"Quiet came to the city, but then the DOJ announcement and the resignations came," said Roberts.

Tensions flared anew last week with the release of a US Justice Department investigation into alleged bias in Ferguson's law enforcement.

The report detailed what it called systemic racial bias in the Ferguson police force and the "toxic environment" it created. In the wake of the report, Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson stepped down.

But even in the midst of intermittent turmoil, Ferguson has seen some improvements.

More than 70 small damaged businesses have received $663,235 in zero-interest loans and grants from a relief fund financed by banks, a regional business chamber and a state economic development agency, according to the St. Louis Regional Chamber.

Sonya Roberts, who in December was unsure if she could afford to keep her store open after three instances of vandalism last year, has remained afloat.

She is three months behind on rent and in December received a $15,000 interest-free loan from the Economic Development Fund.

"We are hanging in there, taking every day at a time,"Roberts said.

Emerson Electric Co, a production line technology company that is one of the few large businesses with major operations in or around Ferguson, has committed $7.4 million to youth job programs, scholarships and early childhood education since last fall.

Businesses have opened up since the riots, including an urgent care facility and a new furniture store on West Florissant Avenue, noted Reggie Jones, the mayor of Dellwood, which saw some of the worst violence last year.

Jones expressed concern about a lack of funding in December, but struck a more optimistic tone on Thursday.

Ferguson and Dellwood have received a $500,000 loan from the state Economic Development Fund for the demolition of impacted stores along West Florissant. One has been pulled down, and work is underway on two others, he said.

"It has taken so long, but that's the process," Jones said.

As money comes in, concern remains about political reform. Only one piece of legislation relating to Ferguson's problems is underway, said Missouri State Senator Regina Walsh.

The state Senate has passed a bill to limit the amount of funds that can be raised from court fines, one of the central grievances of Ferguson residents, but the House has not yet taken up the measure.

"There is appetite to pass reform this year," she said. "It is not going to happen overnight."

Ferguson locals, meanwhile, are showing signs of strain. "The average resident is very tired, worn out, frustrated and upset," said Brian Fletcher, former mayor of Ferguson and head of "I Love Ferguson," which has raised $230,000 for local businesses since August.

"Some of the businesses will unfortunately never return," he said. "I am scared about people giving up and leaving and it becoming another wasteland in America."

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