- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

ST. LOUIS (AP) - A St. Louis County businessman who was the Republican nominee in a losing 2012 campaign for Missouri governor is quietly working to influence the economic recovery in Ferguson.

Amid burned-out and boarded-up storefronts in the aftermath of protests over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, plastics packaging mogul Dave Spence is pushing his effort called Ferguson 1000 Jobs. The Overland native, who is white, said he’s trying to make a difference in the north St. Louis County neighborhoods where he grew up, many of which are now predominantly black.

“I saw systemic problems within our community and our state that weren’t being addressed,” he said, adding that they include failing schools, inadequate public transportation and high unemployment rates among young black men.

Spence, who was defeated by Gov. Jay Nixon in 2012, is highly critical of what he calls an “appalling lack of true leadership during this crisis.”

His effort got off to a rocky start earlier this month at a public unveiling at Harvard Law School. Spence said protesters at a panel discussion he helped organize cursed Ferguson’s mayor and police chief, who were flown to Massachusetts at the former candidate’s expense.

Mayor James Knowles and Police Chief Thomas Jackson did not respond to interview requests from The Associated Press.

Some protest organizers question whether Spence is using Ferguson to pave the way for his own political comeback, which he hasn’t ruled out. Until two years ago, Spence, 56, had never sought elected office. He spent several million dollars of his own money on the statewide campaign.

“I would welcome Spence’s legitimate engagement with the community,” said Saint Louis University law professor Justin Hansford, a panelist at the Harvard event who also helped organize a fall trip to Switzerland in which Brown’s parents spoke at a United Nations human rights conference. “But if he’s trying to use this to make some political move in the black community, that does it for me.”

The 18-year-old Brown, who was black, was killed by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer who resigned in November shortly after a grand jury declined to indict him. The shooting in August sparked weeks of unrest and reignited debate over race relations and police use of force.

Spence, who sold one of his plastics packaging businesses before the 2012 campaign but remains chairman of Legacy Pharmaceutical Packaging, acknowledged the skepticism surrounding his work in Ferguson. He described himself as a “connector” who can bring business, civic and political leaders together while promoting existing job training and mentoring programs led by such groups as the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis and Better Family Life.

Spence declined to specify the amount of his investment in the Ferguson project but said he has enlisted several experts, including a management analyst and an economist. Although he said he has “unfinished business” after his unsuccessful bid for governor, remaining in the private sector is his current preference.

“At this point, I don’t want to go back into the snake pit,” Spence said, referring to politics.

Motivational speaker and community organizer Andre Norman, who helped coordinate the Harvard panel, said long before Spence decided to run for office, the two of them spent several years trying to turn a struggling St. Louis high school around with the help of Spence’s wife Suzie.

Norman, a former gang member and Massachusetts prison inmate, said he has no doubts about Spence’s sincerity when it comes to Ferguson.

“If I didn’t think his heart was in the right place,” he said of Spence, “I wouldn’t have reached out to him.”


Online: www.Ferguson1000jobs.com


Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at https://twitter.com/azagier .

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