- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2015

When the national news media descended on Ferguson, Missouri, in August, the city’s QuikTrip quickly became a symbol of civil unrest and racial tensions. The convenience store’s windows were smashed, the steel awnings were disfigured, and the building was looted and burned during street protests over the police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in a confrontation just a few blocks away.

Today, with the help of QuikTrip’s corporate parent, the first structural casualty of the protests will be reconstructed into a jobs training center and given to the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis to manage. QuikTrip will demolish the structure and donate the land and some funds to the league, company spokesman Mike Thornburgh said.

“The QuikTrip became such a focal point after Mike Brown died, so we wanted to turn that tragedy into a triumph — to let the community know we’re in the rebuilding process, that there are people investing time, money and energy to help provide you with the resources you need to take care of yourself,” Michael McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of St. Louis, said in an interview.

At the height of the looting and rioting, Mr. McMillan toured the streets of Ferguson to ask local youths what they needed the most. One thing became clear: “Everyone said we need jobs, the economic opportunity to take care of myself and my family,” Mr. McMillan said.

The average unemployment rate of black residents in St. Louis County is about three times the number among white residents, according to the most recent census data. Also, some 47 percent of the county’s black men ages 16 to 24 are unemployed, compared with 16 percent for young white men.

When assessing its own employment preparation classes, the Urban League found about 80 percent of its participants were women from single-family households, further demonstrating the need to address the cultural breakdown within the region, Mr. McMillan said.

Wanting to engage more young black men, the Urban League joined corporate sponsors AT&T Inc., Wells Fargo & Co., Monsanto Co. and Anheuser-Busch, among others, to start a “Save our Sons” initiative. The goal is to have year-round, four-week classes of 20 young men to help them find full-time employment.

The Urban League graduated its first class in January, and nearly all of them have jobs, Mr. McMillan said.

Of its 20 initial enrollees, only 11 finished. Students are kicked out of the program if they come late to class or skip entirely.

“The success of the program relies on our ability to get you a job and then for you to keep that job,” said Mr. McMillan. “Jobs are a huge component of [Ferguson’s] problem. If a person doesn’t have the capacity to provide for their families and the dignity of a job, then they are going to take care of themselves some way or another, and that way usually ends up in the justice system.”

Corporations sign on

Other corporate entities agree. Instead of turning away from the troubled region, they are investing more.

Emerson Electric Co., based in Ferguson, has dedicated more than $7.5 million into its philanthropic effort dubbed “Ferguson Forward” since September in order to rebuild the region. The effort includes four major components: early childhood education, youth job and workforce development, scholarships for youths going to college or into technical and trade school, and support to local businesses through the company’s executives on a pro bono basis.

“We’ve been headquartered in Ferguson for 75 years, so after the tragedy in August and the unrest, we knew we needed to take a leadership position within the community,” Emerson Executive Vice President Patrick Sly said in an interview. Emerson has plans to move its Midwest engineer center to its Ferguson campus, bringing about 200 jobs into the area when construction is finished this fall, Mr. Sly said.

Other companies are following.

Health insurer Centene Corp., which has headquarters in St. Louis, announced that it would build an application processing center in Ferguson, providing up to 200 jobs.

“While there was a lot of concern the major corporations would have some trepidation proceeding with projects for Ferguson, that hasn’t materialized, and some have even said, ‘We’re going to take a major role in being part of the solution, to repair economic inequalities and serve the people in the local community,’” said Denny Coleman, CEO of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.

A Swedish manufacturer is building a 300-employee facility partially located in Ferguson, and another St. Louis-based company will announce plans this month to construct an industrial building on the Ferguson city line in an effort to revitalize the area, Mr. Coleman said.

Job creation is a step in the right direction but is not the silver bullet to solve the region’s problems. Better education, criminal justice reform and multiracial cooperation also are needed to fully heal the area, local leaders say.

Ed Bryant, CEO of the St. Louis Minority Business Council, said there is reason to be encouraged.

Since Ferguson, he has been approached by several corporations looking to hire minority-owned businesses to help fill their supply chain in an intentional effort to diversify, Mr. Bryant said.

“A common narrative was: ‘We want to use more minorities but we can’t find qualified [minority owned businesses], so that’s what we are here to do, to close those disconnects,’” Mr. Bryant said.

His group is helping get black-owned businesses certified and credentialed, and is helping area universities develop executive leadership programs for minorities.

Improving education, whether at the kindergarten or university level, is crucial for St. Louis County to fully recover, scholars say.

“You can create jobs, but without better education or schools here, people won’t be qualified to fill them,” said Howard Wall, a professor of economics at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. “It’s a problem throughout all of North St. Louis County: race, poverty and failing schools.”

Lindenwood is working with the city of Ferguson to set up entrepreneur programs, bring in student interns and allow high school students to study criminal justice at the university. The school also has set up a $900,000 scholarship fund for students interested in attending. Since the program was established, Lindenwood has been approached by corporate donors looking to contribute.

“These programs — they’re all pretty new, but are maybe things we should have been doing a long time ago,” Mr. Wall said. “We need to create more opportunities in these [impoverished] areas, more broadly defined.”

• Kelly Riddell can be reached at kriddell@washingtontimes.com.

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