City lauds the arrival of CVS pharmacy in Lower 9th Ward _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Mayor Mitch Landrieu talks with Roger Francis of CVS during the opening ceremony for the drugstore on N. Claiborne Ave in the Lower Ninth Ward Thursday, May 19, 2016.

City officials on Thursday celebrated the recent opening of a CVS drugstore at 5000 N. Claiborne Ave., hailing the chain for being the first national retailer to return to the Lower 9th Ward since Hurricane Katrina 11 years ago.

The 13,000-square-foot store, which includes a drive-through pharmacy window and the usual health, beauty and grocery items for sale, opened to the public May 8, looking pretty much like any other CVS.

But on Thursday morning, company officials, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and other politicos gathered to declare the store a key milestone in the redevelopment of one of the communities hardest hit by Katrina.

“Today’s celebration marks another milestone in the renewal and redevelopment of the historic Lower 9th Ward,” Landrieu said. “This new CVS Pharmacy brings important services and resources to this underserved area.”

The Lower 9th Ward has faced a harder struggle to bounce back from Katrina than any other part of the city. As of last fall, it had only 37 percent of the population it had before the storm, compared with 89 percent for the city as a whole.

Many displaced residents have said they want to move back to the neighborhood but cannot afford to do so because the Road Home Program payments they received were based on the value of the homes that were destroyed, not the cost to rebuild them.

Landrieu touted more than $500 million in recovery projects in the neighborhood, including major road and infrastructure developments, new police and fire stations and a community center.

Laura Paul, head of the advocacy group, said that while the list of things the community needs remains long, the CVS store is a welcome addition.

“It’s been a slow and painful recovery here, so a little bit of economic development is great,” she said. “It’s disconcerting how long it’s taking for this neighborhood to get back on its feet, but certainly a drugstore is a step in the right direction.”

Paul said a grocery store is still a high priority for the neighborhood, along with better city services, particularly debris removal. But she said keeping the focus on rebuilding the Lower 9th Ward’s residential base will “get more families home so businesses are incentivized to return to this community.”

Although opening a store in the Lower 9th Ward often is characterized as a public service, District Manager Council Powell said CVS Caremark believes the demand is there to sustain the store.

“We see the opportunity there,” he said. “It really ties back to what we want for every member of the community — expert pharmacy services and access to health care — and we want the residents of the Lower 9th Ward to have that opportunity.”

Thursday’s ribbon-cutting included the announcement of a $15,000 grant from CVS Health to the local nonprofit Baptist Community Health Services to support its chronic disease management program.

Powell said the store, which will have about 20 full- and part-time employees, has been getting rave reviews from customers since it opened.

“It’s been such a pleasure,” he said. “Every customer that comes in, the appreciation and just the level of joy … it’s been all hugs and smiles.”

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.