Two long-time gift shops run by the NIH Recreation & Welfare Association closed abruptly on July 10 due to financial problems.
One store, located on the first floor of Bldg. 31, had recently replaced the main R&W store on the B1 level of 31. The other was located on the B1 level of Bldg. 10. The R&W store in the atrium of the Clinical Research Center remains open, as does the outlet at Rockledge. The fitness centers and other R&W services remain in operation.
According to David Browne—who is acting head of R&W in the wake of the retirement of longtime president Randy Schools and the recent departure of Schools’ second in command, Kallie Wasserman—a combination of financial pressures and the government shutdown of October 2013 forced the closures.
“It came along quick,” Browne said. “You never expect it. We couldn’t stock the stores and the payroll was too tight, so we had to close the two stores.” Four staff with experience ranging from 10 to 14 years were let go.
“We tried to furlough them for a few weeks,” explained Browne. “It definitely hit them hard.”
Schools has been trying to find new jobs for the displaced employees.
“It’s just a sad situation,” said Schools, who retired last January after running R&W for the past 38 years. “I am volunteering every day to right the ship.”
|This sign on the door of the Bldg. 31 R&W gift shop greeted NIH’ers on the afternoon of July 10.
Browne said R&W, once past its financial strain, hopes to re-open the stores and bring employees back.
“The store in 31 never really got a fair shot to succeed,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind it would have taken off had we been able to stock it. Hopefully we’ll be able to come through this and be able to continue serving this community as we have for the past 70 years. We’ll pull through, rebound and everyone will be happy.”
Browne, who has been with R&W for nearly 11 years, said merchandise from the closed stores has been moved to the CRC atrium gift shop, which is undergoing renovation.
“We’ve got some fighters on our staff,” he said. “We’re going to do all we can to turn this thing around.”
He acknowledged there have been rumors that R&W will get out of the retail side of its operation, focusing entirely on the fitness centers, clubs, services and events. But he does anticipate the gift shops’ return, although possibly in different locations.
“We will be better than we were before, once this issue is behind us,” Browne said.
“While it is unfortunate that the R&W Association had to shut down the operations of the stores in Bldg. 10 and Bldg. 31, it was necessary in order to preserve the long-term future of the R&W,” said NIMHD’s Ken Sonnenberg, chair of the R&W board. “I want to make it clear that we are continuing to maintain full operations of the fitness centers and the programs associated with it. R&W will also continue to operate popular and much needed services to the NIH community which include the community markets, as well as other NIH-sponsored events such as the Institute Relay on Sept. 15 and the Research Festival on Sept. 17.”
The R&W has a use agreement with the Office of Research Services to run the stores, fitness centers and community markets, said Timothy Tosten, associate director, Program and Employee Services, ORS. He said ORS has been hearing talk of R&W’s financial difficulties for the last 8-10 months and has met with the R&W board about possible solutions.
“The stores and fitness centers are a very important aspect for NIH,” he said. “We didn’t think it would come to them closing the two stores.”
In order to assure continued employee services, ORS has been obliged to search for other vendors to run the stores, Tosten said. It is sending out an RFI—request for interest—to potential retail operators; R&W is welcome to apply, he noted.
“Our main concern is the [CRC] atrium store, because it services patients, visitors and employees,” Tosten added. “We want to assure it is run well…We are working closely with the Clinical Center to work with the right group. Clinical Center leadership would like a store that provides the right merchandise for a hospital setting.”
ORS has inquired at local hospitals including Suburban and Sibley to see who provides quality gift shops at those locations. Tosten said he hopes a retail operation can be in place by mid-fall, in time for the holiday shopping season.
“NIH did nothing to make this [financial trouble] happen,” he emphasized. “I feel really bad. I’m worried about all the charity stuff they do. Plus, they run all those clubs.”
ORS is also coming up with contingencies if the fitness centers should close, Tosten added. “There are between 500 and 1,000 fitness center members. If [R&W] folds, we have to be ready.”