A False Narrative About "Impoverished" Ferguson, MO That Just Won't Die

A False Narrative About "Impoverished" Ferguson, MO That Just Won't Die
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FERGUSON, Missouri -- Five years ago this week, the national and international mass media descended upon Flyover Country to flood the airwaves and printing presses with a “narrative” about this suburban community not far from downtown St. Louis. Social unrest had erupted when a young black man, Michael Brown, was shot to death during a struggle with a white police officer.

Disruptive demonstrators – most of them recruited from out of town – rioters, arsonists, and looters brought a halt to business in Ferguson for weeks. The town was presented by the world media as a hellhole of dire poverty, urban decay, drive-by shooting deaths, and despair. Some parts of the St. Louis area deserve this awful description, but not Ferguson.

Ferguson was portrayed as possessed by the demons of racism. Again, this was grossly unfair. Ferguson is notable in its vicinity to north St. Louis County as having resisted the worst extremes of white flight. While neighboring north County municipalities have transformed from 100% white to nearly 100% black since the 1960s, Ferguson stabilized at a ratio of about two-thirds black to one-third white. Ferguson is primarily a middle-class community. The town’s black citizens as well as its white citizens tend to be small business owners, white-collar employees, or workers in trades.

Anyone who takes a complete tour of this town of 20,000 people will observe expansive neighborhoods of attractive housing stock, including two gracious late 19th-century/early 20th century National Register of Historic Places residential districts. In the shops and restaurants and pubs they will note the friendly manners of the racially integrated population.

Ferguson does have pockets and fringes of poverty and blight. One of these, nearly at the eastern city limit of Ferguson, was where Michael Brown lived and died. Had his death happened a few blocks from where it did, “Ferguson” today would not be a name living in infamy. Even the area where Michael Brown lived and died, defined by an unappealing commercial strip, was slated for significant new investment before the riots of 2014. The unrest was a setback, but now the major investment is resuming.

For five years, Ferguson’s recovery has been real but slow. The anniversary of the tragedy of Michael Brown and the rioters’ unjust destruction of employment and enterprises in Ferguson is a good occasion for focus on how the town can be transformed from a place of crisis to one of opportunity in two essential categories: entrepreneurship and education.

President Trump’s tax reform legislation enacted at the end of 2017 created a new program called Opportunity Zones, and about half of the territory of Ferguson has been designated within such a zone. The program incentivizes qualified, long-term investment of capital into enterprises within a zone. The first wave of interest in the program has come from real estate developers. This is one natural utilization of the program, but much more could and should be done with the Opportunity Zone program in places such as Ferguson. It would be a disappointment if the program’s participants were only big real estate developers not well connected with the community.

A recent article in Forbes states: “Entrepreneurs might benefit from Opportunity Zones even more than the typical investor, as those zones don't solely present tax savings. They also offer tremendous fundraising opportunities. This is because the capital gains deferral not only applies to real estate; it includes any type of businesses located in these zones, including startups, technology businesses, etc. This makes investing in business located there very attractive to investors. Entrepreneurs who can start a business or look to relocate their offices inside of these Opportunity Zones can take advantage of the flood of investments pouring into these zones.”

Real estate prices in Ferguson remain very low compared with almost everywhere else in the United States, because Midwest real estate is much more affordable to begin with, plus the unrest of five years ago retarded what otherwise might have been a steady recovery from the financial crisis of 10 years ago. Ferguson’s Opportunity Zone includes spaces suitable for light and heavy manufacturing, offices, and new or rehabbed housing. It should be stressed again, as the Forbes article does, that Opportunity Zones, including Ferguson, are ripe not just for real estate investments but for operating enterprises located – and perhaps leased instead of owned – within the zone.

In a webinar produced by the Missouri Department of Economic Development, Ross Baird of Village Capital elaborates on the tremendous potential for the Opportunity Zone program to stimulate long-term investment in “portfolios of entrepreneurs” in Ferguson and other Missouri communities.

Ferguson is in the heart of a vital industrial, transportation, higher education, and corporate hub of the St. Louis area. It is about a five-minute drive from St. Louis International Airport, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and the corporate headquarters of Express Scripts and the Boeing Defense, Space & Security business. The world headquarters of Emerson Electric, a Fortune 200 giant, is in Ferguson itself.

The Opportunity Zone program is not the only reason to invest and launch new businesses in Ferguson, but those who make smart investments because of the attention brought about by the program may have much to gain.

Ferguson is a model community on which to focus opportunity-based education reform. Its public school district, known as Ferguson-Florissant as it encompasses a larger suburban town just north of Ferguson, has managed to escape the catastrophe of some neighboring school districts whose quality had plunged so much that they lost state accreditation. To put it simply, Ferguson-Florissant maintains standards so that its high school diplomas really mean something, while diplomas from some adjacent districts don’t.

Unusual these days for a community with its size and demographics, Ferguson has two successful Catholic parochial elementary schools. One of these, Our Lady of Guadalupe, is notable as a hub for the fastest-growing large demographic group in the St. Louis area, Hispanics. With a heavy allocation of scholarships to all of its 200 students, this pre-K through 8th grade school provides an education that qualifies nearly all graduates for admission and scholarships to the St. Louis area’s many superb private Catholic prep schools.

Most of the students at Our Lady of Guadalupe are African-American Protestants from Ferguson; the next largest segment of students are immigrants or American-born children of immigrants from Mexico or other Latin American countries. It should go without saying that the school promotes harmony between people of different colors and cultures.

Still, this remarkable school faces a constant struggle to stay open, and schools such as it have closed in neighboring communities where they are so badly needed, because Missouri has no meaningful school choice legislation. Unlike Florida, Texas, Arizona and Wisconsin, which offer exciting opportunities for school choice, Missouri has resisted vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts, and other programs to enhance educational freedom and quality.

Most but not all of Missouri’s big-city Democratic politicians resist school choice because of their ties to the teachers’ unions. But the balance of power in the Missouri legislature, with Republican super-majorities in both houses, is with Republican legislators from rural and small-town districts where public school superintendents tend to be figures of tremendous prestige and power. The state board of education’s bureaucracy in Jefferson City is essentially a government within a government; its functionaries are notorious for slow-walking to death even the most modest gestures of the legislature towards school choice for parents.

How will Ferguson be faring 10 years from now, when the first exits from the Opportunity Zones’ long-term investments will be taking place? What sort of education will this community’s children obtain? Is it realistic to envision dramatic improvements for Ferguson and much more distressed parts of the St. Louis area, in education, culture, civil society, and material standards of living?

Emphatically yes. Ferguson could flourish if imaginative entrepreneurs embrace the spirit of opportunity there. Ferguson's children will be equipped to become leaders in culture as well as business if Missouri’s legislature follows the example of Florida, Arizona and other states with authentic education reform.

Joseph Duggan is head of C-Suite Strategic Counsel, an international public affairs consultancy. This week Encounter Books published his book “Khashoggi, Dynasties, and Double Standards."

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