The Best of Times Returning For Downtown Ferguson

  By Tom Anselm

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

That opening line from Charles Dickens’s “Tale of Two Cities” could apply to the fortunes of downtown Ferguson since its early beginnings as a burgeoning suburb of shops and upscale homes after Charles Ferguson sold some of his farmland with the promise of locating a Wabash rail station in the early 1850s. The commercial and residential growth was steady until a fire in 1895 gutted the business district.

The subsequent rebuilding went on until 1925.  Another resurgence occurred in the 1950s as businesses began catering to the increasingly car-crazy populace.  And after yet another slump, today the area is enjoying a vibrant renewal as restaurants and independent shops are sprouting all along the main corridor of S. Florissant Road.

“We have some great entrepreneurs in our area.  And new businesses are coming to look at our downtown as the place to be,” said City Manager John Shaw of Ferguson for over four years.   This started nearly ten years ago, “but we have had vision plans developed and working well before that.”

Shaw was quick to point out that even with the best of plans, it took the efforts of independent merchants and volunteers to bring about what can be seen as an-inner suburb renaissance.

One such person is Joe Lonero who  has long been a prime mover and shaker in the Ferguson area.  His auto body shop has been in the area for over 35 years and he has had his hand in several restaurants, shops and residential enterprises which are going a long way towards changing the face and future of the downtown district.

“You can look up and down this street and see that Joe has had a piece of most of what’s going on here,” said Joe’s son Mike Lonero, as we sat at the sidewalk seating outside Cork Wine Bar. The younger Lonero owns and operates Cork as well and the longer-established Vincenzo’s Italian Ristorante nearby.

“You can look up and down this street and see that Joe has had a piece of most of what’s going on here,” said Joe’s son Mike Lonero, as we sat at the sidewalk seating outside Cork Wine Bar. The younger Lonero owns and operates Cork as well and the longer-established Vincenzo’s Italian Ristorante nearby.

“I mean, he not only had the ideas, he did the actual build-outs for these and a lot of the places you see.  Hammer to nail stuff, doing it himself.”  He told the story of Joe wandering over to check out a public auction of the old St. John’s Liquor store and coming out owning the building.  It now houses the Ferguson Brewing Company, the restaurant and micro-brewery that is selling it’s draft beer around the city and will soon be set up to market a bottled brand of its many brews.

“He bought the brewing equipment sight unseen, drove out to Colorado to get it, rented a truck and driver and brought it back.  Didn’t know a thing about it, but with help from some expert brewers, he put it together and it’s working fine.”

Others willing to take the chance on Ferguson have seen similar success.  Kelly and Martin Braun have located their remodeled and expanded Marley’s Bar and Grill in the former Golden Greeks site.

“It’s all Joe Lonero’s fault,” said Kelly Braun with a laugh.  “We were having dinner at Vincenzo’s and Joe said ‘Hey, you should buy that place.’  And so we did.  Things are going great.”

But private enterprise is only part of the story of the changing scene in Ferguson.

“We have been able to use some TIF approaches to get infrastructure improvements, with much spent on roads, decorative street lamp lighting and small business grants,” noted city manager Shaw.  “A TIF can sometimes be seen as a bad word, but in this case, the businesses themselves help support the grants, and it only makes it that much better for them when a successful tenant comes in. The mayor, James Knowles, and the council members have also been very helpful in zoning and with other supports as well.”

Then there is the “Plaza at 501”, located at the south end of the district, a completely “green” development, with state-of-the-art paving surface and  self-sustainable landscaping, that has been a focal point for many music and community festival events.”

Using “City Walk” as a brand concept, the city has effectively established a pedestrian-friendly ten-block downtown area, with The Farmer’s Market is in the Victoria Plaza at the North end of the district.

“Karen Noelker coordinates that huge job, with the many farmers and other venders,” said Shaw.  He also noted the coming new fire station complex next to the police department, to be ready for use in late 2012.

Add the Savoy Banquet Center owned by the Faramarzi family, the annual Ferguson 5-K run, the Northern Lights Celebration in December, the recently-held “Better Block Project” and the “Live Well Ferguson Twilight Ramble” set for  Sunday, Nov. 6, to a wide variety of shops, bakeries, eateries and historical sights, and it’s easy to see why the downtown Ferguson is becoming a destination for all ages.

John Shaw sums it up.

“Our main focus is to continue to support our entrepreneurs and seek new ones, while still promoting the idea of people moving into our beautiful stock of homes, and also expanding the rental availability. We have some fine new lofts and apartments (which according to Mike Lonero, are at 100% occupancy), and would like to move in that direction as well.”

Another writer, Bob Dylan, may have said it best with respect to Ferguson’s future. “The times, they are a’changin’.

And, for Ferguson, it seems the best of these times are on the horizon.

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