Partners for Care, the non-profit group which ran half a dozen gift shops at the QE2 Health Sciences Centre for 25 years, abruptly closed the doors at its remaining four locations Tuesday.

A charity without charitable activities to operate raises some interesting questions, particularly as Partners for Care evolved from the QE2 Health Sciences Centre Auxiliary, which succeeded a charity begun at the Victoria General in the 1970s.

An emailed statement to employees from Jane Davies, the executive director of Partners for Care, announced the large gift shop at the Halifax Infirmary (Robie Street entrance) as well as three smaller stores at Camp Hill Veterans’, the Dickson Centre, and Centennial sites were closing immediately. Four people are now out of steady jobs.

“With the changing retail landscape over the last several years, the shops have struggled and they are no longer profitable; this has impacted our ability to support patient care,” said Davies’ statement. “As a result, Partners for Care has made the difficult decision to close all stores. This unfortunately will mean the stores in the Halifax Infirmary, Centennial, Dickson and Veterans Memorial building will be closed effective January 14, 2020. An inventory liquidation sale will be held in the near future, with proceeds going towards patient care.”

A woman expecting to shop contemplates the closed gift shop at Camp Hill Veterans’ Hospital operated by Partners For Care. Photo: Jennifer Henderson
The gift shop at the Halifax Infirmary operated by Partners For Care has closed. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

The non-profit Partners for Care has collected proceeds from the shops as well as all parking fees from QE2 hospital parking lots, returning $5 million each year to the Nova Scotia Health Authority. PFC’s audited financial statements for the past three years ending in March show the amount of revenue from parking continues to climb (up $400,000 from 2018 to hit $7.45 million before expenses in 2019) whereas revenue from gift shops was down by $250,000 from 2018.

When asked, Davies did not provide more detail about why the stores were losing money nor how much. In an email response (she was out sick yesterday) she suggested, “a change in consumer purchasing behaviour” and explained “the decision to close the stores was made to allow for the opportunity to explore new and more relevant business models and formats.”

What those will look like remains a mystery. So far, Shoppers Drug Mart and a sleep business are the only stores operating out of the Infirmary.

Jane Davies was hired as the executive director of Partners for Care (PFC) two-and-half-years ago after a stint as a consultant. She worked previously as a vice-president at Zed Events for Robert Zed, who is one of many members on PFC’s Board of Directors. When Davies took over, the charity operated half a dozen gift stores before closing locations at the Cobequid Health Center in Sackville and the VG.

Last year, Partners for Care spent $268,361 on consultants’ fees, which the executive director said included advice on strategic planning, business development, graphic design, communications, and the audit. The consultants from last year are not listed, but a consultant from a previous year was Heather Spidell, who was hired to look into gift shop operations sometime after she left the Centre for Entrepreneurship Education and Development.

Davies and the director of financial services collectively earned $200,000 in salary and benefits from Partners for Care last year. (The financial statement does not separate out the salaries individually.)

Partners for Care also operated a number of social enterprises with the expectation they would eventually become profitable, although most operated at a small loss. The gift stores were managed by Myr Pike, a 20-year employee whom CTV recognized as “Maritimer of The Week” for having hired and trained more than a hundred people with disabilities. Davies terminated Pike in the spring of 2018.

Audited financial statements for the past three years show that retail sales fell 50% in that period — from $1.4 million in 2017 to just under $750,000 for the year ending in March 2019. A café called the Mindful Mango which taught food prep to people recovering from mental health issues closed last year. Initiatives such as the Common Roots Urban Farm and a bus called the Mobile Food Market that delivers produce to poor neighbourhoods thrived and transferred out to another agency called Metroworks.

“Partners for Care used to be an auxiliary that did good work. So what’s happening now with that organization is a big question,” said Jayme Melrose, a former project coordinator at Common Roots.

A retired employee with Partners for Care for over 20 years was upset to learn the non-profit is no longer providing service to patients or the broader community. “What a disappointment,” said Karen Mills. “Partners for Care operated proudly for over 23 years. The shops were a huge part of the hospital community, staff, patients, visitors, and volunteers. We were told in 2018, that Partners for Care was to transition to an arm’s-length, new model that would improve on the existing initiatives and programs and increase the revenue for Partners for Care/NSHA. Today the initiatives, the programs, and the shops are all gone.”

Mark Innis chairs the Board of Directors for Partners for Care. I wanted to know if the non-profit would be wound up, now that it is no longer managing charitable activities. After an initial phone call, he didn’t make himself available to discuss that point but executive-director Jane Davies did.

“On the contrary, Partners for Care is at an extremely exciting point in its evolution and is strategically positioned to pursue new business opportunities,” wrote Davies. “Furthermore, non-profit is not exclusively synonymous with social enterprise or charitable activities.”

Photo: Jennifer Henderson

And here I thought every time I was paying for parking, I was doing a good thing by contributing to front-line health care! Interestingly, when the HST arrived nearly 30 years ago, the Capital District Health Authority turned over the collection and management of parking lot revenue to the hospital auxiliary. Unless a charity was collecting the fees, patients and visitors to the hospital would have had to pay HST on their parking costs, an inflammatory subject at the best of times. Partners for Care used the parking proceeds — after expenses and over-and-above what it transferred to hospitals — to finance its operations.

But right now it has no operations to manage, and its charitable status is no longer required to shield citizens from the taxman. The Canada Revenue Agency changed the rules a few years ago to allow hospitals to exempt patients and visitors from paying HST on parking as long as they charge staff and doctors HST on their parking costs. (They must park at a separate garage.)

Today there doesn’t appear to be any reason why the NSHA’s manager of business development couldn’t oversee the day-to-day activities of Indigo, the company which actually runs the parking lots under contract to Partners for Care, the same way hospital security and other managed services are operated.

Jane Davies offers another point of view: “Managing revenue-generating enterprises is outside the core business (provision of health care services) of NSHA and that’s why this sits with Partners for Care,” she replied. “PFC will continue to manage parking at the QEII. We provide the capacity to create a patient-centred approach to parking as much as we can.”

It’s true that “frequent flyers” or family and friends spending long days visiting in-patients can request (and usually receive) a discount on daily parking costs just by asking at the Information Desk.

As for the future of the non-profit itself, Davies says it’s time to turn the page.

“We welcome your feedback on what on-site business and services may be of interest to you who work at the QEII sites. You can share your thoughts at PartnersForCare@nshealth.ca.”

Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. The writing was on the wall when they killed their hockey pool a couple of years ago, to my chagrin. Guess it wasn’t profitable enough for the new regime.

  2. wait, if PFC is taking the parking revenue, why is the taxpayer buying a new parking garage?
    its not like PFC is managing the lot, they hired a parking company to do that.

  3. This is a great example of the type of good, local investigative journalism you can’t find anywhere else. Thanks.