Right Dix deal, wrong GOP response

Converting the Dix Hospital property to a park will be a big benefit to Raleigh and the state.

December 4, 2012 

Only minutes after the Council of State voted to allow the City of Raleigh to develop a major park at the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus, Republican Sen. Phil Berger, the state Senate’s leader, issued a statement declaring: “It is a sad day for our state when leaders entrusted to protect the best interests of all North Carolinians give a valuable state asset to a chosen few for little in return.”

We appreciate the alacrity of Berger’s analysis, but we regret its lack of perspective.

Berger may be ready to order the flags flown half staff, but Tuesday was not a sad day for North Carolina. It was a great day for the state and its capital city. The Dix property will be home to an impressive 325-acre park available to all North Carolinians who visit their state capital.

Dorothea Dix Hospital was founded in the mid-19th century at the urging of its namesake and over the objections of many state lawmakers who thought its cost excessive despite the chronic lack of treatment for the state’s mentally ill. In the ensuing century, the hospital cared for thousands and became a symbol of North Carolina’s enlightened treatment of its needy citizens.

Onetime opportunity

Tuesday’s 7-2 decision by the Council – a group of 10 statewide elected officials – carried echoes of that founding dispute. Backers of the park plan stressed its value as a common open space that fast-urbanizing Raleigh may never again get a chance to acquire. Berger and other conservative Republicans stress the cost of creating a park compared with what the state treasury might get by selling the land for private development.

The issue here concerns the definition of the common good. Backers of the park, led by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue and various citizen advocates, see the park as an enhancement in the quality of life for today and for generations to come. It is not a giveaway. The state will retain ownership and the City of Raleigh will lease the property at a cost of about $68 million over 75 years. Some of that money should be used to boost mental health programs.

Critics of the park see the Dix land only as dollar-green and the public’s interest served only by cashing it in. That view ignores the land’s value to the public in the future. You can sell it only once. And its value at a sale would depend on its eventual zoning and the resolution of various environmental issues, including a former landfill now covered by soccer fields.

Critics’ suspicions

But, of course, this dispute isn’t totally about land values and state revenues. In this case, critics are calling the Dix agreement a “last-minute deal” conceived by “Raleigh elites” and a raid on the state treasury to acquire another capital city bauble.

While the park’s approval is heartening, the reaction of Berger and conservative groups is discouraging. Republicans, about to take control of both the General Assembly and the governorship for the first time in a century, send a dismal “humbug” message about their sense of stewardship by attacking rather than endorsing the Council’s act. Gov.-elect Pat McCrory, despite the short-sighted grumbling from members of his party, should stand behind the council’s thoughtful approach toward meeting the needs of today and tomorrow.

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