Former Greater Falls Pharmacy owners Gina and Marc Cote.
Robert F. Smith/The Commons
Former Greater Falls Pharmacy owners Gina and Marc Cote.

Owners plan pharmacy opening in June

Former Bellows Falls pharmacists plans to reopen a new enterprise to replace their former business in their building

Ever since it closed on Sept. 29, 2023, due to a bankruptcy, former Greater Falls Pharmacy owners Gina and Marc Cote have stated that their goal was to reoccupy the building and reopen.

"As soon as we get our building back," they told The Commons this past September, "we will get ready to reopen, with a new name, a new business model, and with serving our community with optimal pharmacy care at the heart."

Those plans have started to fall into place, and the Cotes say they are hoping to open the new business at 78 Atkinson St. - the old location - under the new name Fall Mountain Pharmacy on June 1.

A 20-year history

The Cotes originally opened the pharmacy in 2003 and ran it successfully for 15 years. In 2018, the couple sold the pharmacy to Michelle and Donald Laurendeau, of Westminster, who had been longtime employees.

The Cotes planned for Marc, with his 30 years of pharmaceutical experience, to be a mentor to the new owners as he remained a part-time employee at the pharmacy, and that arrangement was built into the terms of the sale.

Also, the Cotes wanted a plan to assess how the pharmacy was doing by having access to its books and records.

The Cotes said that, under those conditions, they willingly financed 100% of the sale.

According to the Cotes, the pharmacy collateral - the business, its inventory and the customer base - would return to them if the Laurendeaus failed to keep the pharmacy operating.

Gina Cote, under the name GMS Family Partnership, is the legal owner of the building where the pharmacy operates.

Shortly after the sale, the Scrapbook Nook portion of the business, which Gina Cote ran and thought she would continue to run separately through an informal agreement, began to change. The Cotes thought it might be phased out.

When they removed some of the scrapbooking material from the building, the Laurendeaus terminated Marc Cote on Oct. 2, 2018, just 45 days after the sale agreement.

In 2019, the Cotes unsuccessfully hired a lawyer to try to get access to the pharmacy's business records. They never saw the financial records up to the bankruptcy.

Since 2018, the Laurendeaus regularly made their payments on the business loan, and they stayed current on their rent for the pharmacy space.

But the Cotes said that they were surprised to find out that the pharmacy would be closing and that the Laurendeaus would be filing for bankruptcy.

They learned of the impending closure only after a notice appeared on the pharmacy door on Sept. 8, 2023 notifying customers of the Sept. 29 closing and advising them to find a new pharmacy.

The Cotes unsuccessfully filed a restraining order that same day to try to prevent the bankruptcy and the pharmacy closing.

On Oct. 29, 2023, a month to the day after the pharmacy closed, the Cotes changed the locks and took over the building through a plan devised by their attorney. Though they assumed that all the pharmaceuticals had been removed by that date, as required by law, that was not the case.

They did not access the locked pharmaceutical portion of the building. A week later, a qualified third-party pharmacist accessed the pharmacy and reported that they removed $73,300 in pharmaceuticals that had been left in the building.

According to state administrative rules of the Board of Pharmacy, all drugs must be transferred to another pharmacy, returned to wholesalers, or destroyed within 30 days of a pharmacy's closing.

The return of equipment, such as the computers in the building, is still being worked out.

Greater Falls Pharmacy Inc. filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in November 2023, declaring $403,000 in assets and $2.2 million in liabilities, including $593,000 to Marc Cote.

The Laurendeaus also submitted a personal bankruptcy petition to the Vermont Bankruptcy Court on Jan. 3. Attorney Todd Taylor of Burlington is representing the couple in both petitions.

The Commons asked the Laurendeaus for comment on this story. They declined to do so.

Looking ahead

Rather than dwell on the difficult past few years, the Cotes say that they want to focus on getting things in place to reopen in a few months. They said they haven't been able to inspect the building for the past five years, and they plan to make some upgrades.

It will take time, Marc said, to acquire all the licenses and contracts with pharmaceutical firms required to reopen.

Operating an independent pharmacy is a challenge in the current culture of national chains. The Cotes say they are going to focus on niche areas in the field that their type of operation would be more suited to.

Among those things is non-sterile compounding, where a pharmacist works directly with a doctor and patient to prepare custom medications, such as salves or powders, on site for human or animal patients. Chain pharmacies do not do compounding.

The Cotes said they will focus more on wellness, including doing onsite point-of-care testing, including for strep throat, HIV, diabetes, and cholesterol. Their wellness work will also include helping with issues like sleep and physical flexibility.

They will also focus on patient education around chronic diseases such as diabetes, high cholesterol, blood pressure, and seizures, and they will administer vaccines, which most doctors' offices no longer do.

They plan for the pharmacy to resume local deliveries.

Fall Mountain Pharmacy will also be working with long-term care facilities in an approximately 30-minute radius and offer long-term care for people still in their homes. These services include automatic prescription refills and custom blister packaging of medications.

They plan to hire a second pharmacist. Hours will be Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. They will be closed Sundays, but they will offer emergency services.

"We are elated to be back," Gina Cote said. "We didn't sell the pharmacy to have something like this happen. We're coming back more knowledgeable, more prepared, and stronger."

This News item by Robert F. Smith was written for The Commons.

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