NEWBURYPORT — A standing-room-only crowd at points resembled an angry mob last night as residents gathered to voice their support for the White Hen Pantry convenience store that will soon close to accommodate an expansion of the neighboring CVS pharmacy.
Members of the New England Development team, headed by Ann Lagasse, stood up against criticism and at some points strained to be heard amid claims their boss, billionaire developer Steven Karp, doesn't care about the community.
In a public meeting at the library spearheaded by downtown business owner Liz Frame, members, one by one — sometimes shouting — told their story of what the White Hen means to them and swore to never step foot in a CVS chain store again.
"I rely on White Hen and CVS for all sorts of things, and no one wants to see CVS go, but we don't want to sacrifice the White Hen for a larger CVS," Frame said.
White Hen's lease expires in April and is not being renewed by New England Development. Owned by Karp, New England Development controls a significant portion of the downtown retail space as well as the future of eight acres of waterfront property called Waterfront West.
In recent months, a group of neighbors and customers started circulating a petition, which has more than 2,000 signatures, at the store on Pond Street. Bumper stickers saying "Save the Hen" are also on sale.
Frame said for her, the issue goes beyond the convenience store.
"This is a small, family business (White Hen), and we have come to know them as neighbors," she said. "It's the little guy vs. the big guy, and it's issues about wealth vs. no wealth. And these kinds of issues resonate with me in a major way."
Amid a flurry of questions regarding Karp's intentions, Lagasse, along with Tony Green, Tina Santoro-Smith and Sharron Toomy of New England Development, tried to be heard.
New England Development is managed locally by Ann and Chuck Lagasse, from whom Karp purchased the Newburyport property. Ann Lagasse is its retail leasing director.
She said Karp is aware of the issue and supports the pharmacy expansion.
"We have had a lot of meetings with Mr. Karp in the room, and his feeling is he has been dealing with White Hen corporate and (the local owners) have had plenty of time to find another location," she said.
As New England Development officials have battled fears of chain stores infiltrating the downtown's independently owned shops, Lagasse noted that neighbors initially didn't want the White Hen chain.
"Twenty years ago, my husband and I bought that lot — it was vacant at the time," Ann Lagasse said, noting a grocery store that became a tenant later went belly up. "Ironically, we were trying to bring Henry's Market to that spot, but they opted out, and White Hen went in instead. At the time, no one wanted the Hen because it was a convenience store and a chain."
Lagasse noted White Hen owner Scott Munroe's success as well as his commitment to the community and community events, such as the Winter Carnival.
"Seventeen years later, we have two successful businesses, which have both outgrown their location," Lagasse said. "We knew something would have to give. For CVS, this is an unconventional site for them; their model is different than 20 years ago."
The majority of supporters agreed that CVS has a place in the community as a convenient place to park and pick up prescriptions but said part of its success is due to the symbiotic relationship among CVS, White Hen and Panda Express, a dry cleaning business.
Lagasse pointed to CVS's push toward expansion, offering more merchandise and installing drive-through pharmacy windows in many of their locations.
Lagasse also noted White Hen, like CVS, is a chain store, and their dealings with the lease go through White Hen corporate and not the local owners. New England Development began talking to White Hen about the CVS expansion last year and gave the chain and the Munroes a year's notice, Lagasse said, noting she even helped the Munroes get in touch with another real estate broker for alternative sites in the city.
"We signed the deal with CVS because they would have left the plaza," Lagasse said, garnering exasperated sighs from the group. "They have a model. People can laugh, but that's the case."
As the meeting wound down, supporters asked Frame and Lagasse what they can do to let their voices be heard.
Frame said she has been boycotting CVS since the summer. She urged residents to think about doing the same and removing their prescriptions from CVS in favor of Lynch's Pharmacy on High Street.
Urging Lagasse to bring the community's concerns back to Karp and the CVS Corp., some questioned whether New England Development would allow CVS to break their lease if the corporation had a change of heart.
"Tell me yes or no — is there anything we can do at this point?" Kathy Isbell of Bromfield Street shouted.
Lagasse said the lease has been signed, and she will make no promises on behalf of New England Development in regard to allowing CVS to abandon the lease.
"This is just the canary in the coal mine," Isbell said. "This is just what is going to happen when he finishes development of the waterfront; this is just a taste."