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Walgreens to add 600 jobs in Chicago

Walgreens Market Vice president John Grant Mayor Rahm Emanuel Walgreens President   CEO Greg Wasstour food sectibefore announcing 'Chicago

Walgreens Market Vice president John Grant, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Walgreens President & CEO Greg Wasson tour the food section before announcing the "Chicago Hometown Investment Initiative" at Walgreens 8628 S. Cottage Grove. Wednesday, June 29, 2011. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 30, 2011 2:12AM

Deerfield-based Walgreens is dramatically increasing its Chicago presence — by adding 600 city jobs, building up to a dozen new stores and remodeling 39 existing drug stores in food deserts to feature fresh fruits and vegetables.

Half of the new jobs will be created in Chicago neighborhoods, where residents have precious few shopping choices.

The other half will be downtown, where Walgreens plans to add jobs in e-commerce and information technology.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Walgreens President and CEO Greg Wasson announced the “Chicago Hometown Investment Initiative” at a news conference at a Walgreens store at 8628 S. Cottage Grove, just a few blocks from the first Chicago Walgreens, which opened in 1901.

The new mayor has made eradicating food deserts a priority and recently summoned major retailers to a private meeting where he showed them maps of shopping-starved areas and demanded to see their plans to build stores in those neighborhoods.

Wasson was a participant and his company obviously got the message loud and clear.

“About 93 percent of Chicagoans live within a mile of a Walgreen drug store. Frankly, that’s what excites us. There are a couple things we think we can do to help serve communities and add jobs,” Wasson said.

“It’s neat to be able to do good business while doing good. This is our opportunity to do just that. . . . Fortunately, we are in communities that are, maybe, under-served and don’t have convenient access to fresh food or even medical providers and medical care. We can leverage that footprint to expand our fresh food, as you’re seeing here. We can also leverage our pharmacists and nurse practitioners to be able to provide access to health care.”

According to a new study by the Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, the number of Chicagoans living in food deserts has declined by nearly 40 percent in recent years with construction of a host of new stores in inner-city neighborhoods.

Even so, Emanuel has focused on the desert — not the oasis.

The mayor said he applied his “persuasive skills” to Wasson after stopping at an Auburn-Gresham Walgreens during the mayoral campaign to use an ATM and noticing the fresh fruits available there.

“I called him and I said, ‘What’s this about?’ And he said, ‘We are now starting to make an investment in food desert communities and turning our stores into [featuring] fresh fruits and vegetables,” Emanuel said.

“I said, ‘This is something I’m passionate about: to turn and deal with, as a city, the fact that 450,000 residents do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.’ ’’

The dozen new stores will add to the 142 already in the city. The 600 new Walgreens employees in Chicago bring to 3,600 the number of jobs the city has added since Emanuel took office.

First, it was GE Capital with a promise to add 1,000 new jobs by the end of 2012. That was followed by 1,300 jobs promised by the mega-airline created by the United-Continental merger, 400 more promised by Motorola and 300 by Chicago-based Allscripts.

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