Advocates: Dix sale should help mentally ill

Use funds for mental health, they urge state

mgarfield@newsobserver.comFebruary 21, 2012 

— As talks resume to create an urban park on the Dorothea Dix campus, mental health advocates are urging the state to designate money from a potential land sale to care for the mentally ill.

The proceeds could establish a foundation or special fund to support community-based counseling and treatment providers.

That's the vision of a half-dozen nonprofit and association leaders who visited The News & Observer on Monday to talk about the future of the Dix campus.

It now appears inevitable that the 306-acre site will become a park, mental health representatives said. The group has asked Gov. Bev Perdue to sell the land for full market value and create a source of revenue for new and expanded care programs.

"We've jumped up and down to try and keep Dorothea Dix open," said Ann Akland, advocacy chair for Wake County's National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter. "We know that is not going to happen."

The 150-year-old Dix state psychiatric hospital has been scheduled to close. The state opened a new hospital in Butner as part of a broader effort to reform North Carolina's system of mental health services.

The prospective value of the Dix land, based on a "fully rebounded market," is $86 million, according to an appraisal by Raleigh-based Worthy & Wachtel. However, the property's current market value is $60 million, the appraisal found.

Perdue said last week that she has directed the state Department of Administration to move forward with the eventual transfer of 1,300 state employees on the Dix property to other offices. The governor called the moves "an integral step toward ultimately converting the Dix campus into a public park."

Raleigh leaders have said they would pay a fair price to acquire the property for a park, but the two sides have never agreed on what the land is worth.

Mental health advocates say the conversion can achieve multiple goals.

"There's an opportunity here for a win-win," said Deby Dihoff, executive director of NAMI NC. "The land is going to be sold. Why not go ahead and have the revenue be dedicated to something positive?"

A foundation may represent a "reasonable way to compromise," said Sen. Bob Atwater, a Chapel Hill Democrat.

"It does better protect it from those of us in the General Assembly who are constantly looking for funds," Atwater said.

Money from the Dix sale could go toward supportive housing and job programs, more local inpatient-bed capacity and peer support to guide patients toward recovery, mental health representatives say.

"We have pockets of excellent programs," said Vicki Smith, director of Disability Rights North Carolina. "The problem is, it's not comprehensive in any one area."

A future park could charge admission for concerts and attractions to generate money for mental health programs on an ongoing basis, said Greg Poole Jr., head of the pro-park Dix Visionaries group.

But the first step, he said, is to settle on a master plan for the property "so that it doesn't get used for the wrong thing."

Garfield: 919-836-4952

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