Nearly two months ago, tragedy struck the central Florida community of Sanford. The shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teen, by community watch member George Zimmerman exploded onto headlines, thrusting the once quiet and unremarkable city under a national microscope. The continuing controversy has also dealt a blow to local small businesses.
As scores of media personnel and activists descended upon the area, residents and businesses found themselves facing very public scrutiny and a growing fear that the community was harboring a racially hostile environment -- which prompted locals to cut back on their normal routines, including shopping. "There was an air that the community was on the verge of bad activity or violence and that is not the case," Nicholas Mcray, Sanford's director of economic development, said. "There was never any kind of trend of violence, but that was the perception put out by the media."
While it's been weeks since the shooting, the small businesses that make up Sanford's historic downtown continue to suffer, with some businesses seeing up to a 50 percent drop in activity. "A few convenience retailers are seeing a 2 to 3 percent increase, but the downtown area is really taking a hit," Mcray said.
The Orlando suburb of 53,000 people had once welcomed tourists and visitors from neighboring communities, all of which were drawn to Sanford by its welcoming, cobble-stoned city center. Since the shooting, however, many residents have kept to themselves and kids have stayed inside, causing a sudden and severe drop in sales and activity, according to local business owners. "I've seen between a 50 to 55 percent decrease overall," said Naomi Gonzalez, owner of Le Petit Nails, an upscale nail boutique. Gonzalez, who said she normally sees seven appointments per day, has only had 14 appointments scheduled thus far for the whole month of April. She noted that while some restaurants close to city hall have seen an increase thanks to media crews, other businesses that rely heavily on local traffic are suffering. "This is a great, charming, historic district and that's why I chose to invest thousands of dollars to do business here," Gonzalez said.
Even people from the community began to believe some of the rumors and claims that made their way into the media, fearful of angry mobs and the media frenzy concentrated near city hall. "The threats to downtown were totally fabricated," said Gonzalez. "There were a couple of peaceful marches, people voicing their concerns for justice at the police station and the park, but it was all to show respect, there was no violence."
Gonzalez, a single mother, lives in the same development where Martin was gunned down, and witnessed the neighborhood close in on itself. "In the beginning, it was horrible," she said. "We had media at our gates and the Black Panthers. People were living in fear. Yesterday, finally, there were kids playing on the block."
Now, nearly eight weeks after the incident and with Zimmerman behind bars, community leaders and business owners are devising a plan to restore the peaceful and welcoming nature of the community. "We're collectively working with the chamber of commerce to tell the right message -- that Sanford is an open and safe environment," Mcray said.
Gonzalez, who has been in business since 2009, said she is convinced the shooting was an isolated incident and not part of a broader racial problem in Sanford. "This is a good town," she said. "I'm Latina and I've been welcomed here. My daughter is happy in school here. We grieve for the family, we grieve for the community, but we have to move on. We really hope that people give us another chance to see that this is a great place."