NORTH ADAMS -- It might seem odd that an atheist is concerned about saving a church, but when it comes to the St. Francis site in North Adams, it's for entirely secular reasons.
There's an online petition on Change.org (http://chn.ge/1ckepL8) inching its way to 2,000 virtual signatures. Its goal is to stop the demolition of the 150-year-old church, which is owned by the Catholic Diocese of Springfield, for a possible new CVS location. St. Francis stands on Route 2, across the street from the Big Y plaza with the current CVS store.
Mayor Richard Alcombright, in a Transcript op-ed piece in May 2013, said CVS told him of its interest in and plan for the St. Francis property, and he articulated his opposition to demolishing the church building.
I've heard the confusion again and again as to why CVS is so interested in this property, and I can't say I have an answer. Anybody who does business at the current location can see the investment the company made to expand and update the pharmacy area.
CVS recently bought the 107-year-old Nassif's Pharmacy, transferring its customers and pharmacists over to the CVS location in the Big Y plaza, expanding its business and making an investment to manage the additional customers and train new employees.
There are logistical issues with the move as well. St. Francis sits across the street from a Dunkin' Donuts that is already notorious for creating some vehicular nightmares. A CVS in its place isn't going to help.
There are also business logic and community need concerns. The St. Francis location is across the street from a Rite Aid and a block down from Little's Pharmacy. Who is going to fill the empty CVS space created in the Big Y plaza? Another pharmacy? How congested can the competition area possibly get?
And will we eventually be left with an empty shell in not one but two places once CVS inevitably either closes or moves out? All these stores seem to disappear eventually. Leastwise, I don't see CVS lasting here 107 years.
The trope being pushed by corporate interests is that the church is currently useless and the CVS will bring investment in. That's not even remotely true. North Adams, more than any community in the region, knows the long-term price of tearing down historic buildings and replacing them with mundane, modern retail boxes. Look at the south side of Main Street and spot the glimmer of what could be in the eyes of long-term residents.
North Adams is half a city, an amputated downtown limping through the decades. (For the record, it's not unprecedented to house a pharmacy in a former church: Hotel Pharmacy operates in one in Brattleboro, Vt.)
This is more than an outsider company demolishing local history. It's an attack on the community's connections. If CVS moves to the St. Francis property, a boycott might be urged by opponents. That would hurt the corporation, but also the store staff, notably those in the pharmacy.
A pharmacist is someone you build a relationship with, especially those who receive regular medication, like the elderly, and those who need guidance with insurance quirks. They are our friends and neighbors and don't deserve the retribution that the corporation might.
That is the real danger of the CVS proposal in North Adams. The city has already been permanently bisected physically. The spiritual wounds are healing, but still very raw, and the demolition of the building will stab at that tender flesh.
Can North Adams take a deeper scar like that during this crucial period of its forward development? Do any of us really want to find out?