Change has been fairly constant the past few years at NW 63 and Western Avenue, but the latest jolts to the neighborhood are upsetting some as they see long-beloved landmarks being closed as Chesapeake Energy Corp. continues to implement its master plan.
Customers already were mourning the loss of Crescent Market, which was a staple at Nichols Hills Plaza for 48 years. It is closing on Oct. 29 as Chesapeake prepares to tear down the building and replace it with a new market.
Now customers are preparing to rally Saturday to let the community know they're not happy with yet another loss — that of the neighboring Nichols Hills Drug store and its old-fashioned lunch counter.
J. Black, owner of Nichols Hills Drug, 6411 Avondale Drive, has not responded to requests for interviews, but on his Facebook page he confirmed the store may be closing, but he might be able to reopen the only pharmacy in a temporary location.
In a previous interview, Robert Pemberton — owner of Crescent Market — said he was unsure how the lunch counter could stay open because he has long supplied the eatery daily with fresh meat and produce.
Longtime area resident Bill Gumerson was among those mourning the end of the lunch counter, noting it was his father, an architect, who designed the shopping center more than a half-century ago.
“I was raised at this counter, my kids were raised at this counter, and my grandkids are being raised at this counter, the oldest of which is 12,” Gumerson said. “It's been a big part of my life, my family's life, so it's very important. It's hard to see it change as it's about to change.”
Customers now are wondering whether the old-fashioned toy aisle, the lunch counter that served hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches, the comic rack and other old-time favorites may soon be gone forever.
While landmarks like Crescent Market and Nichols Hills Drug have remained essentially the same over the past half-century, the immediate vicinity has undergone a tremendous transformation, much of it driven by Chesapeake Energy.
The company has been praised for creating nearby Classen Curve, which attracted long-desired retailers such as Whole Foods and Anthropologie. Upscale eateries and gift shops have replaced empty fields and aging office buildings. The company has spent millions building up its own campus at the southeast corner of NW 63 and Western.
Change happens, Gumerson acknowledged, but “a lot of us are uncomfortable with this change.”
The change at Nichols Hills Plaza was concerning enough to another longtime customer, Reid Calhoon, that he set up a “Save the Drugstore” Facebook page that had 596 followers as of Thursday. Another Facebook page, meanwhile, is calling for a rally that is set for noon Saturday to support the drugstore.
“Most of those that I have spoken with were upset that Crescent Market was closing but understood that, with the addition of Whole Foods, Crescent Market, which had been losing money for years, would not be able to compete,” Calhoon said. “The drugstore, however, has been a thriving business for many years and has provided services (pharmacy and soda fountain related) that much of the community of Nichols Hills has and will continue to depend on.”
Calhoon believes community anxiety could be assuaged if representatives of Chesapeake Energy would answer questions about plans for rebuilding the shopping center and the fate of Nichols Hills Drugstore.
Representatives with Chesapeake Energy have declined interviews with The Oklahoman but did release a statement earlier this week through their public relations contractor, Brent Gooden.
“Chesapeake is unaware of any closing date, and we have not requested Nichols Hills Drugstore to vacate,” said Henry Hood, senior vice president of land and legal for Chesapeake. “We are discussing with Jay Black the possibility of temporarily relocating the store within Nichols Hills Plaza while the space is being renovated and remodeled, which will require several months.”
Hood said in his statement several ideas were presented including combining the store with adjacent space occupied by Crescent Market, which he previously announced will be replaced by a new grocery.
“Our goal is to work with Jay to minimize the interruption to his business and the inconvenience to his customers always associated with a reconstruction project of this nature,” Hood said.
The Oklahoman responded with questions asking whether Chesapeake Energy or its real estate representatives presented to Crescent Market or Nichols Hills Drug store a plan that called for demolition and reconstruction, or renovation of their buildings. The company also was asked whether it requested or discussed the possibility of increased rent following any such changes and whether retailers given a choice of declining these changes.
Hood replied with the following statement: “We have considered a number of plans to redevelop Nichols Hills Plaza and will likely have more before we settle on a final one. Everything we do has been and will be first class. Our redevelopment of Nichols Hills Plaza will be no exception.”
Chesapeake Energy first verified to The Oklahoman in 2008 it had long-range plans for the area that included the possibility of rebuilding Nichols Hills Plaza, which it bought a couple years earlier. Calhoon hopes Chesapeake officials will visit with area residents and share their overall vision for the area.
Lean Farha, who is organizing the rally for Saturday, is hoping the company will better appreciate the drugstore's value to the surrounding neighborhoods.
“It was a huge part of my childhood, and for my twin brother and I it was a bonding experience — we would ride our bikes there everyday,” Farha said. “And when I came back from college, it's where I would meet my friends. We want Chesapeake to see how important this store is. It's where a generation has gone for breakfast and lunch; it's a historical place.”