Vaughan Hospital – A Prognosis on Vaughan Hospital
An enormous promise is entrenched in an otherwise vacant 35-hectare field at Major Mackenzie Drive and Jane Street. “Future Home of Vaughan’s First Hospital” reads the conspicuous blue and white sign that’s weathered a few more storms than expected. In the background, the vibrant colours of Canada’s Wonderland offer a unique parallel to a far less amusing theme: for the City of Vaughan, it’s been a roller-coaster ride to the realization of a premier health-care facility.
The ups and downs were set in motion in 2003, when Vaughan Council decided it was time Canada’s largest municipality without a hospital finally built one. The city has swelled significantly since then, yet it’s faced with an empty stretch of land, a recently relinquished health-care foundation, a contentious $10 million federal grant that’s slipped out of grip and a sign that’s getting stale. With a major player
out of the race, conflicting opinions about the final date of fruition and a population that’s projected to climb to more than 400,000 by 2031, some are getting weary over an indefinite wait time.
The now non-operational Vaughan Health Care Foundation (VHCF) was a non-profit organization enacted on Jan. 16, 2004, by the City of Vaughan as a separate entity to help bring a hospital and ancillary services to a burgeoning municipality that could never wholly depend on itself for superior health care. Former mayor Michael Di Biase initially chaired the charity (a role later assumed by local developer Michael DeGasperis) which was, at the time, comprised of civic and community figures such as Michael DeAngelis and Angelo Baldassarra. Their task would not be a small one. While the province would be responsible for coming up with 90 per cent of the $1.3 billion cost, the city would have to acquire the land and the VHCF would have to help raise approximately $200 million for construction and equipment costs.
From there, a private, not-for-profit corporation called Vaughan Health Campus of Care (VHCC) was established in November 2007, with a mandate to coordinate the development and establishment of health-care programs and services, garner government approvals and help determine a hospital site, as the province would only get involved once the lands had been secured. DeGasperis was named chair of the VHCC, and construction insurance businessman Sam Ciccolini sat on the board and transitioned to become chair of the VHCF. “We started our fundraising, we started our galas. We started fundraising with third-party events within the city,” says Ciccolini.
In April 2007, a few months prior to the VHCC’s establishment, Ontario’s then health and long-term care minister, George Smitherman, announced that the provincial government would encourage and support the development of a hospital in Vaughan. “Planning for new hospital services in Vaughan needs to happen,” he asserted at the grand opening of Kleinburg’s Villa Colombo centre for seniors. Six months later, he provided a capital planning grant to the Central Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) to commence planning of hospital services. If all were to go as planned, shovels would be in the ground by 2011, and doors would open soon after. “Needless to say, that has not happened, and in my opinion, won’t be happening in the near future,” says DeGasperis, who believes that Smitherman was sincere and committed to his role in bringing the project to life.
Spawning from a vision proposed in the 2005 Health-Care Facility Planning Report, the VHCC explored options for the development of an economic bio-cluster of buildings and infrastructure surrounding the hospital. It would consist of a network of amenities such as a long-term care facility and assisted living for seniors, and provide links to health-related providers, research, and educational institutions. “You have to be a visionary, and you have to think ahead and have a foresight to what’s going to happen for the future and what kind of services we’re really going to need,” says DeGasperis, adding that his involvement was strictly volunteer-based and that he made it clear from the outset that he would not be bidding on the tenders of the project. The VHCC moved along with its mission to locate an ideal site for the hospital and its supplementary services.
And so they did. “The [VHCC] approached no less than nine owners of parcels of land within the area of the City of Vaughan, and at the end of the day, they felt that perhaps the lands on the north side of Wonderland would probably be suited best to build the hospital and this cluster of care,” says Ciccolini. On June 30, 2009, a Contribution Agreement was signed on behalf of the city by former mayor Linda Jackson, as well as the VHCC, where the VHCC entered into an agreement of purchase and sale to acquire lands, “that appear, after the undertaking of due diligence, to be appropriate for the future location of a hospital.” Vaughan taxpayers would dole out $80 million for land and development costs, forming a significant slice of the local share. The city also intended to transfer ownership of the property to the VHCC when the project was in the third stage of the provincial approval process, so that building could proceed.
With the intent of expediting the project, Ontario’s Ministry of Health told the VHCC to align itself with York Central Hospital (YCH), striking a collaboration agreement between the two parties in October 2009. The hospital would now be built under the guidance of YCH, not the other way around, and the foundations would be encouraged to merge. “We were in so many words told by the government of the day that unless we partnered with York Central Hospital, we would not have a hospital in the City of Vaughan,” says Ciccolini, who reluctantly obliged.
In March 2010, the YCH Board of Trustees opened itself up to members of the VHCC, including DeGasperis, Ciccolini and others. “We went along, and right from the offset, there was some friction,” Ciccolini says. At least on paper, that friction seemed to be manageable. In fact, in a VHCC media release dated Feb. 9th, 2011, DeGasperis sounded optimistic, touting that “together, YCH and VHCC are committed to working with elected representatives, community leaders and health service partners … If we continue to all work together, we will achieve our collective goals very quickly.”
Controversy arrived a month later on March 16, 2011, when newly elected Vaughan MP Julian Fantino announced that the Federal Economic Development Agency (FedDev) would grant $10 million through its Prosperity Initiative to the VHCC to support its life sciences economic cluster. To some, it was deemed a big accomplishment at the time, but others were quick to point out their concerns over federal money being granted to a private cluster of care instead of directly to the hospital. It should be noted, however, that FedDev Ontario does not provide funding for hospitals, as that falls under provincial jurisdiction. This gift came wrapped in a ribbon of obligations to be met by the VHCC; ribbons that would later tie the campus’s hands due to an unanticipated change in direction.
For DeGasperis, VHCC’s tipping point came a few months later in the form of a letter from Vaughan MPP Greg Sorbara on June 24, 2011. “Since the mandate for the hospital development now rests with YCH, the model contemplated by the agreement between the city and the VHCC no longer is relevant or necessary for hospital purposes,” Sorbara wrote to Vaughan Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua. His words did not sit well with the VHCC. “MPP Sorbara basically intimidated York Central and the City of Vaughan to do things his way. You know what, he basically threatened them that it’s either going to be his way or no hospital,” says DeGasperis. “Well, that’s just not true,” Sorbara contends. “The fact is, what I did is advise the VHCC, the City of Vaughan, that yes, we’re going to have a hospital in Vaughan, it will be by way of the expansion of the mandate of an existing hospital in Ontario … I also think that planning around those surplus lands has to be consistent with the hospital, because the land belongs to the city,” he adds.
Soon after, though not expressly related, the city held a meeting and advised it would no longer be transferring the Campus of Care Lands over to VHCC and would work towards renegotiating the terms of the Contribution Agreement. All seemed to be well for a while and it appeared as though the YCH and VHCC were eager to develop a partnership that would prove to benefit all parties. A few months later, however, on Dec. 15, 2011, the VHCC wrote a letter to the Vaughan council and staff, expressing its belief that the city wished to pursue a different strategy with the YCH for the Campus of Care Lands. As a result of this, the VHCC expressed that it was “reluctantly acquiescing to the city’s desire to terminate VHCC’s involvement in the development of the Campus of Care Lands,” sparking an inevitable winding down of the agreement. Feelings on the subject are still firm today. “We are very disappointed that our efforts to bring a life sciences campus of care to Vaughan have been obstructed and averted. The city was manipulated and intimidated to believing that the hospital is just around the corner, and that the VHCC was not the appropriate organization to advance the planning and servicing for the Campus of Care Lands,” says DeGasperis.
The change in direction has put the $10 million in jeopardy. In March 2012, the VHCC informed FedDev that it would no longer be able to proceed further with the project since it could not secure a land transfer and the $20 million contribution from the city. “As a result, FedDev Ontario is working with the VHCC to terminate the contribution agreement for the project,” a spokesperson from FedDev Ontario wrote in an email, adding that once the termination agreement is negotiated, remaining funds will be de-committed and allocated to other projects being considered. “We were on the right track to be in the ground and working on infrastructure, at this moment,” says a disappointed DeGasperis.
Like a row of dominoes, the VHCF soon took a hit when Ciccolini was informed that YCH had plans to incorporate a foundation of its own for a similar purpose of raising funds for a Vaughan hospital. “I said, ‘you’re kidding? Why would you do that when there’s already a foundation?’” The YCH stands by its belief that foundations are a vital vehicle to raising funds. “We’ve been working with the Vaughan Foundation, we’ve been working with the York Central Foundation, to make sure those local share dollars are there for not just the Vaughan hospital, but we’re obviously a large enterprise,” says YCH president and CEO Altaf Stationwala. This decision was enough for the VHCF board to unanimously decide to remove itself from the equation in May 2012. “In light of the impending incorporation of the new foundation and in order to minimize any confusion that may occur within our community, I felt that it was time to give it up. We’ve become a persona non grata within the system,”
Minister Fantino also chimed in. “This is discouraging news for our hard-working community volunteers who have dedicated so much time, energy and resources to bring high-quality health-care to Vaughan,” he wrote in an email in regards to the disbandment of the VHCF. Stationwala says YCH was shocked by the news, but will be moving forward with plans to introduce an integrated and aligned brand for the hospital. “We’re hoping the brand launch is going to be targeted for some time in late June,” he says. Bevilacqua respects the foundation’s decision and commends its accomplishments to date. “I’m sure they came to that conclusion based on some very well-thought-out and intelligent discussion they had. And that is why I’m very grateful for the work that they have done,” says the mayor, adding that he remains focused on the ultimate objective to bring a hospital to Vaughan. The $12.3 million raised by the VHCF will be put into a Vaughan Hospital Building and Equipment Trust Fund that will aid the city and YCH as it latches onto the baton.
As it stands today, the province has approved Vaughan’s hospital and aims to issue tenders for proposals from private sector partners in 2014-15. “This project is currently in Stage Two Planning, which allows the YCH to define the size and scope of services at the new hospital, identify bed numbers, service volume projections, and technical parameters used by architects to develop and refine the architectural plan and prepare the tender documents,” says Health Minister Deb Matthews. Quite significantly, Vaughan’s was the only major hospital project that was spared in Ontario’s recent budget cuts. In the meantime, Vaughan Council has hired Cole Engineering and planning firm Malone Given Parsons (formerly hired by the VHCC) to support the city in moving forward with a comprehensive precinct plan for the development of the hospital site.
There may be a medley of conflicting views surrounding plans for the 35-hectare field of dreams, but there is a shared belief that one day, all eyes will fasten its gaze on Vaughan’s very first hospital. “There’s going to be a rollout in the near future of exactly when the hospital is going to be built,” says Bevilacqua. Stationwala estimates that the completion timeframe is between 2018 and 2019.
While DeGasperis and Ciccolini view the recent events as a setback, they both remain passionate about carrying out commitment No. 15 in the Contribution Agreement, which is to make all reasonable efforts to advance the establishment of a Vaughan hospital. “As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter how we get the hospital. Even though I’m not involved in raising the funds for the hospital, I live in the City of Vaughan. Let’s do it. Let’s put the shovel in the ground. Let’s end all these flowery things,” says Ciccolini, who dedicated himself to philanthropy after losing his 10-year-old daughter to a bone marrow complication. “We really wanted to set up an entire Campus of Care that was going to benefit many people. It was a big vision, but certainly achievable,” says DeGasperis, adding that the VHCC will continue to operate and support the city’s health-care initiatives through various projects.
“I often say that the spirit and generosity defines us,” says Bevilacqua. Even in the debris of the hospital debate, the city’s philanthropic pulse never ceases to beat.
Update: In September, the VHCC’s blue and white sign (pictured above) was removed from the parcel of land at Major Mackenzie Drive and Jane Street in Vaughan.