CALUMET HEIGHTS — Days after Walgreens announced it would be closing one of its South Side stores, representatives from the drugstore chain faced a barrage of questions from residents who say they rely on the store for their health care needs.
The forum, held at Compassion Baptist Church, 2650 E. 95th St. and organized by Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th), allowed residents to directly question Stephen Peterson, Walgreens director of pharmacy and retail operations, and Cornetta Levi, a health care supervisor for the company.
Levi had hoped her hometown ties would curry favor, but she ended up stone-faced at the lectern as residents laid into her and Peterson.
Walgreens is closing 200 stores nationwide, with five of them in the Chicagoland area. In addition to the location at 95th Street and Jeffery Boulevard, stores in Wrigleyville (Clark and Broadway), Bolingbrook, East Chicago and Orland Park will shutter next month.
“The business has changed,” Peterson explained. “How we get paid has changed. Getting Medicaid to pay is one of our biggest challenges, and we have a higher percentage of Medicaid at this corner, and we lose money on every prescription we serve.”
From the outset, Peterson made it clear that the decision was final, but neither Peterson nor Levi were able to offer more specifics, which infuriated the 80 or so residents packed into the church’s sanctuary.
Peterson said the store lost $300,000 last year, which left the corporate office no choice but to pull the plug. He apologized for the impact the store’s closing would have on the community, saying that their main concern was making sure employees from the store still had jobs.
Still, residents felt they didn’t receive enough warning to prepare.
“Why are we here with you? You knew you were closing the store four months ago but you didn’t give us a chance to organize,” said Carolyn Curtis, a retired teacher. “You tell us ‘there are so many of you on Medicaid’ that you can’t afford to keep the store open. That’s an insult.”
“We have made it very clear that the pharmacy was the most important thing. We don’t want your little dilly dally candy. We need our medicine,” said Curtis, who added that she’d start a petition to challenge the decision.
Levi said neighboring Walgreens locations at 87th Street and Stony Island Avenue and 91st Street and Commercial Avenue would be able to accommodate Calumet Heights customers, though she acknowledged that it would present a challenge to elderly customers who aren’t as mobile as others.
Levi suggested residents take advantage of the free prescription delivery offered on the Walgreens website, which didn’t go over well with some people in the audience.
“Not all of us have access to the internet,” a resident yelled.
If the meeting was meant appease Calumet Heights customers, it may have had the opposite effect — as residents seemed even more determined than ever to either prevent the store’s closure or boycott Walgreens altogether.
“The decision was made by dollars not people, and you didn’t see the people who would be affected by your decision,” said a member of the South East Calumet Heights Homeowners Association.
Mitchell called the meeting a “first step.”
“The community had an opportunity to be brought up to speed and now we can determine what our next step is going to be,” the alderman said. “It could lead to a boycott. I got to talk it out.”
State Rep. Curtis Tarver was unsatisfied with the answers the Walgreens representatives provided Thursday, saying he wanted to hear from Walgreens’ corporate offices.
“If you’re closing down a business and we ask you what those reasons are, you need to be able to articulate those reasons,” Tarver said. “The same way you can articulate why you need TIF money, or when you want a place zoned for a Walgreens.”
Tarver said the representatives sent by the drugstore chain couldn’t answer questions about how many jobs have been lost due to closings.
“There’s an incorrect perception that we’re less organized than other communities,” Tarver said. “They’d be well-advised to remember there was a reason they came to our neighborhoods in the first place …we do have buying power to sustain businesses.”
The store is set to close Nov. 11.
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