By Kevin Murphy
JOPLIN, Mo (Reuters) - They started coming into Ink-A-Tak tattoo shop right after the tornado, seeking to fete their survival or memorialize a victim.
Who would expect a tornado to be good for the tattoo business?
As it turns out, the May 22 tornado has been good for a lot of businesses in Joplin in the past six months of cleanup and rebuilding.
The tornado damaged or destroyed about 7,500 homes and 500 other buildings, but the city is now well into a recovery mode that has spurred some segments of the local economy.
Ink-A-Tak, for example, not only does tattoos for tornado survivors but is serving construction workers in the area, many from outside Joplin.
"It's opened up a lot of jobs and we are right on the edge of ground zero," tattoo artist Alex May said.
On a much larger scale, the post-tornado period has brought a rush of sales in building materials, furniture and cars while also proving a boon for restaurants and hotels. It has boosted sales tax revenue and generated work to replace some lost jobs.
Enthusiasm for the short-term jolt in parts of the local economy is restrained, however, considering that the tornado killed 161 people and upended many lives.
"We all love to do more business but we don't want it to be because of the tornado," said Jeff Jolliffe, operations manager at Ashley Furniture, where he reports booming sales.
Jim Cooke, owner of a Slumberland furniture store, said he thinks most people are pleased to see how the city is recovering and don't resent that some businesses are making a profit.
"The more places that get rebuilt and the more places that get reopened the more positive it is for the city," Cooke said. Good crowds always turn out at reopening ceremonies, he said.
Lumber and other sales at Meek's -- The Builders Choice in Joplin -- are more than double the previous year, said Sam Short, retail sales manager.
"It's been nuts," Short said. "We've had to bring in a lot of extra stock to fill the need." The store also had to hire more employees, boosting the staff from 13 to 40 in recent months.
The tornado not only destroyed buildings but thousands of cars. Sales of cars and trucks are up over 125 percent this year at the five dealerships in the Roper motors group, said John Elliott, Roper Buick GMC sales manager. Body shops are also doing a much more brisk business, he said.
Mike Wiggins, owner of two Granny Shaffer's restaurants in Joplin, said his business is having its best year ever. Joplin restaurants have catered to workers and thousands of volunteers.
Meanwhile, total monthly receipts at the city's 32 hotels in each of the past five months have risen by between 17 to 26 percent, according to the Joplin Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Sales tax collections for the city are up due to the spike in some retail sales. The 1 percent general sales tax generated an 18 percent increase in collections for August through November compared to the same period a year ago.
But that is not a windfall because the city took losses to property and equipment in the tornado and has paid significant employee overtime in cleanup and repair efforts, said Leslie Jones, city finance director.
The tornado wiped out the jobs of about 5,000 people at destroyed businesses, but employers kept about 3,500 of those people on the payroll, said Kirstie Smith, communications director of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce. So far, more than 80 percent of 523 destroyed businesses have opened or committed to reopen, she said.
In addition, a $12 million U.S. Department of Labor grant put about 800 people to work in cleanup, repairs and humanitarian aid, said Jasen Jones, executive director of the Workforce Investment Board of Southwest Missouri. About 600 are still working, he said.
Jones said Joplin continues to draw the interest of manufacturers and other employees who already liked the area because of factors such as relatively low costs.
The chamber of commerce has seen a big jump in membership, including businesses from outside the city, Smith said. That has generated revenue for the chamber and shows a unified business front in rebuilding Joplin, she said.
"It's been a real show of support for the community," Smith said.
(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Jerry Norton)