On Tuesday, North Carolina’s Council of State is expected to decide whether to lease a huge tract of land to the City of Raleigh to create a park. The more than 300 acre site is home to what used to be the state’s Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospital, which is now closed. Many civic and business leaders support the idea of creating a downtown park in Raleigh. But lawmakers have spoken out against it, saying Governor Perdue is moving too quickly with the project.
It’s a sunny afternoon and I’m standing here right in the middle of the Dix campus. I can see the tops of some of the downtown buildings in Raleigh and I’m looking out at acres and acres of rolling hills and enormous oak trees on this property. The main hospital building is right behind me. This is truly prime real estate and many people who are here today say they understand why what to do with this land has become such a source of controversy.
Motts Mueller: "The outgoing Democratic governor and incoming Republican governor- they probably have slightly different perspectives on what to do-"
Motts Mueller is a Raleigh resident who likes to walk through the campus several times a month.
Mueller: "There’s probably a lack of trust about stewardship for the long term. And some concern that developers or other people might come in here and ruin the vision of a destination park and turn it into more of a commercial enterprise or build condominiums up and down this beautiful space."
Mueller says he’s aware there have been discussions over the fate of this property for years, ever since state leaders announced plans to close the psychiatric hospital on the Dix campus. The last patients left for good in August. On Tuesday, the elected members of the Council of State are expected to decide whether to lease the land for 75 years at a rate of 500 thousand dollars a year, plus a 1.5 percent annual increase. But earlier this week, Republican Senate President Phil Berger expressed reservations about the timing.
Phil Berger: "It seems to me that if it’s a good idea now, it’ll be a good idea a month from now, two months from now when the legislature, new governor, and people of the state have had a chance to hear exactly what it is that we’re doing."
Berger and other legislative leaders feel the Governor shouldn’t be pushing the Council of State toward a vote right now. They’re reluctant to allow the outgoing governor to put her stamp on the project. But members of the Council of State, not lawmakers, have the power to decide whether to lease or sell this state property. A bill was introduced in the legislature earlier this year saying lawmakers would have to sign off on any final decision over the Dix campus, though it wasn’t taken up for consideration. Meanwhile, proponents of the park say they’re surprised by the opposition. Greg Poole heads the Dix Visionaries, one of the non-profit groups advocating for a park.
Greg Poole: "As non-partisan as this would seem to be to me, it’s become far too political, and I think that’s sad, particularly when we have an opportunity to save a jewel of a piece of property that will benefit millions of North Carolinians every year for years to come."
Poole says the group has worked for seven years to get officials on board to create what city planners call a destination park, much like Central Park in New York. Dix Visionaries is made up of civic and business leaders who’re both Republicans and Democrats. Governor elect Pat McCrory has been associated with the group in the past, though he recently echoed lawmakers’ sentiments to slow down the project. His spokesman has also mentioned support for the view held by many in the mental health community. Debby Dihoff heads the National Alliance on Mental Illness North Carolina.
Debby Dihoff: "Our position’s always been- why not sell the land at fair market value, still do a park if that’s what people want, but find other money for that and preserve some of the money that was originally put into the Dorothea Dix property to continue in a way her legacy."
Dorothea Dix- who the property is named after- was a nineteenth century reformer who lobbied states across the country to create asylums. Dihoff thinks the state should sell the property and use the proceeds to fund programs for people with mental illness. Proponents of the park idea say it’s inevitable that there are different points of view over the fate of the Dix property. But they say no matter what the Council of State decides on Tuesday, they’ll keep lobbying for their dream to create a destination park in the center of Raleigh.