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Rally in the Hills

Don’t call it a protest, but residents stood their ground at Nichols Hills Drug.

Clifton Adcock November 2nd, 2011

Every lunch counter seat was taken as people ranging from the very young to very old shared stories and drank the sodas served by the clerks behind the counter. Cooks flipped the burgers on the grill, sending the smell of seasoning and cooking meat throughout the Oklahoma City store.

In the back corner of Nichols Hills Drug, a man with gray hair and glasses worked to fill prescriptions, removed but aware and thankful for the flood of customers that had filled his store on a Saturday afternoon.

“I just appreciate everyone coming out and showing up,” owner J. Black said from across the pharmacy counter. “I’m appreciative of the great staff I have.”

Moments ago, many of the people sitting at the lunch counter or shopping in the aisles of the drugstore and fountain had rallied in support of the Nichols Hills institution, which has been in the community since the 1960s.

right, Paula Burroughs prepares for the Nichols Hills Drug lunch crowd.

Nichols Hills Drug will soon close, and its current location, Nichols Hills Plaza, renovated by its owner, Chesapeake Energy.

Several dozen people showed support for the drugstore by holding signs such as “Save our Drugstore,” “We love small town America” and “Nichols Hills Drug, no fracking here.”

“This is an institution — they can’t close it. All my children grew up finally being old enough to walk or ride their bikes to the drugstore,” said Ann Taylor, a former Nichols Hills mayor who showed up for the rally. “This is a small town in the middle of a big town, and we like it this way.”

Local architect Jim Loftis, who attended to show support of the drugstore and fountain, said there is a certain novelty in a rally being held in Nichols Hills.

“We wanted to just observe and support the fountain. It’s an institution and something we all use a lot,” Loftis said. “If people want to own the property and put in a new fountain, that would be great. It’s been a real service to our community for a long, long time. We would hate for it to go. We love what Chesapeake’s doing in general around the community and around Nichols Hills. We cheer them on. This is a deal about the fountain.”

Chesapeake, which has its large campus near Nichols Hills Plaza and owns several properties in the area, acquired the property five years ago.

The drugstore and fountain is the second business to go, following the announcement in September that Crescent Market, a grocery store that has been in business for more than 120 years and been located in the mall since the 1960s, would be pulling up stakes as well.

Crescent Market and Chesapeake representatives said they agree on the following: When the market’s contract expired this summer, it spent a few months leasing on a month-bymonth basis under the same terms, which could be canceled by either party with a 30-day notice.

Cliff Davis, a spokesman for Crescent Market, said the departure had to do with the amount of money it was paying to Chesapeake on a monthly basis. Chesapeake planned under a new contract to increase the market’s rent from around $3,000 per month to around $6,000 per month.

Davis said Crescent is currently trying to finalize plans to move the store to a different location, hopefully within a five-mile radius of its current spot.

Henry Hood, Chesapeake’s general counsel and senior vice president of land management, said the rumors that the company increased the rent were not true, but that Chesapeake had asked the store to pay what is known as common area maintenance charges, which are charged to tenants for the upkeep of the shared areas.

Black would not discuss the future of Nichols Hills Drug with Oklahoma Gazette, but Hood said the interior would be renovated and a grocery store with a pharmacy and a lunch counter will be put in the location, although the existing structure will not be torn down.

Black and his pharmacy would be moved to a temporary location during renovations, and the current owner will likely be brought back to run the pharmacy in the new location, although the store and lunch counter will likely be run by another company, Hood said.

“Our plans are fluid as to what it’s going to look like. We’re not going to demolish the building; it’s just going to be a remodel. The plan is to have the pharmacy here and have the lunch counter here in some form or fashion,” Hood said.

Renovations to the building, which could take up to six months to complete and will be designed by local architect Rand Elliot, are still a few months away, Black said, and the day of Nichols Hills Drug’s closing has not yet been determined.

Hood also showed up at the rally to correct what he said was misinformation about the transition.

“I’m here because I’m familiar with the rally; I know why everybody’s concerned,” Hood said. “A lot of it’s based on misinformation and the desire to express everybody’s concerns and the desire to keep the lunch counter, which is a tradition in Nichols Hills.”

A new counter will be installed and the old one thrown away, Hood said.

Though many of those in attendance at the rally said they appreciated him showing up, Hood was soon surrounded by supporters of Nichols Hills Drug and faced several tough questions.

“So you’re talking about a Walmart basically. A Walmart (Neighborhood) Market with a pharmacy,” said rally participant Linda Carpenter.

Hood said the business that goes in will not be a Walmart, Walgreens or CVS Pharmacy. Hood said around $1 million would likely be invested in the building by Chesapeake during the next five years.

“It will be unique,” he said.

“Everything we do is unique. I can’t tell you the specifics of what it’s going to look like.”

The issue of Whole Foods Market, which recently opened with the encouragement of Chesapeake at Classen Curve shopping center, also arose.

“The plan right now is to renovate the space that becomes available and to make it better and improve it. For us to have better tenants in here,” Hood said, “or different tenants that can survive.” This comment drew some snickers from the audience gathered around, and Hood responded.

“Well, the fact is the tenants can’t make any money here with the kind of competition we’re seeing,” he said. “And we are very conscious of the sales tax.”

“But you brought the competition in. You did,” one woman replied.

“There’s 300 people over there right now who will tell you they are happy Whole Foods is here,” Hood said. “It’s a game-changer for retail in this city, and there’s no reason why the two can’t coexist.”

Carpenter said she felt the community was being refashioned to reflect Chesapeake’s image.

“We’re concerned that Chesapeake is more concerned about what they envision, as opposed to what the citizens want,” Carpenter said. “That is what this whole thing is about.”

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