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Walsh: Walgreens - Anger fades, needs stay

Published July 22, 2007 2:43 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Walgreens' business strategy is baffling.

First, the drugstore chain buys a building lot. Company architects design a big-box store. The pharmacy hires local attorneys on retainer. And when city planners and residents question the company's plans, they sue.

It seems to be working. Thirty years after closing its last store in Utah, the Deerfield, Ill., drugstore chain is revived, with 14 stores in the Salt Lake Valley alone.

Walgreens takes the long view. It knows something we forget: Anger fades. Competitors close - on Sunday, at 7 p.m. or entirely. And in the end, shoppers offended by Walgreens' tactics eventually find themselves picking up amoxicillin for their baby's ear infection, a cheap lawnchair and a gallon of milk - at 11:30 p.m.

Holladay is just the latest Utah community to get the brass treatment.

Technically, the fight is between the city and Salt Lake City-based Thomas Fox Properties. The developer bought property smack in the middle of the city's heart, the proposed Holladay Village Center, and plans to plop a Walgreens there. When city staff tried to impose unique design rules on the pharmacy behemoth - size restrictions, architectural guidelines and setbacks meant to make the new town center walkable - the developer, with the approval of Illinois, sued.

"We'd like to assure the community that we're still working with the parties involved toward an outcome that will be satisfactory for everyone," Walgreens spokeswoman Carol Hively said. Walgreens also owns property 10 blocks west, across the street from Cottonwood Mall.

"We carefully choose our locations based on a great deal of research and this location makes sense to us as the demand for prescription drugs increases," Hively added. "As we continue through this process, we're optimistic about coming up with a mutually satisfactory resolution."

That sounds so nice, so reasonable, so disingenuous.

Walgreens shoe-horned its way into Sugar House eight years ago. Like Holladay, Salt Lake City neighbors didn't like what company attorneys called a "rat box." The drive-through worried them and they wanted the store situated on the front rather than the back of the lot, to encourage foot traffic. Walgreens sued.

In the end, the city settled - Walgreens agreed to build a sort of kiosk on the corner that houses a small jewelry store.

Sugar House neighbors who fought in 1999 still boycott the store. But they're alone in their protest.

"After all these years, I don't even read their ads in the Sunday paper," said Helen Peters, a community council trustee. "It's one little thing to rail against the system. If we could get people not to shop at these places, we'd have more leverage."

Holladay neighbors are organized, circulating a petition and vowing allegiance to the three pharmacies around Walgreens' proposed site.

Allyson Nielson is one of them. She stopped last week at locally owned Olympus Pharmacy for a prescription for her teenage daughter. The drug store is caught in a time warp, a place where a rack of Hallmark cards snakes around a display of Madame Alexander dolls, Salt City candles and children's books. Nielson says she'll never shop at trendier Walgreens.

"I love Olympus Pharmacy. The service is so good. They know you when you come in," she said.

But Walgreens apparently is banking on the theory that 24-hour service and a drive-through will crack that loyalty. After all, it worked in Sugar House. Even after Third District Judge Glenn Iwasaki ordered Thomas Fox Properties to go through the city's design approval process in May, the developer kept suing, taking the case to the Utah Court of Appeals.

Holladay Attorney Craig Hall is puzzled. "Why would Walgreens want to fester that type of feeling in a community?" he asks. "People have a choice where they are going to go. They're not going to go to Walgreens. It doesn't make sense."

But Walgreens takes the long view.

walsh@sltrib.com