Dorothea Dix compromise surprised Raleigh park backers

ccampbell@newsobserver.comMay 27, 2013 

During a community gathering in March, local residents still hoped that there will be a public park on the Dorthea Dix property in Raleigh, NC.

COREY LOWENSTEIN — newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— When legislative aides released the latest Dorothea Dix property bill last week, Dix park supporters were among those who swarmed the table to grab a copy.

Before many of them had time to read the five-page compromise bill to renegotiate the city’s lease, City Attorney Tom McCormick told the state House committee that Raleigh would back the new version. It would provide an additional year to reach new lease or sale terms, allow the state to keep 30 acres for offices, and give Raleigh a chance to buy the 40-acre Governor Morehead School property across Western Boulevard from Dix.

“We believe we have a lease, but we also welcome the opportunity to engage in these discussions,” McCormick told the committee, which then voted unanimously for the new bill.

But days after the hearing, the private groups who have pushed for a 300-acre destination park at Dix still aren’t sure what to think.

Businessman Greg Poole – whose Dix Visionaries group is raising $3 million for park planning efforts – has repeatedly declined to offer his opinion on the compromise. “I’d rather not comment right now because I’d like to be factual and I don’t have the facts,” he said last week.

An hour before last week’s House committee meeting began, Poole sat in the back row of the room, eagerly awaiting news of the park he has lobbied for since 2005. He said he was unaware of any compromise in the works.

‘It scares us’

Another grass-roots group of park advocates, Dix306, also was in the dark about the legislation. The group’s president, Bill Padgett, sees pros and cons in the House bill. He likes the idea of including portions of the Governor Morehead School property as a connection between Dix and Pullen Park.

But Padgett is not keen on a provision that sets aside 30 acres at the former hospital’s historic core to house the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. The governor’s office said keeping the offices at Dix is more cost effective than former Gov. Bev Perdue’s plan to consolidate the agency at a new site.

“It scares us a little bit,” he said. “You don’t need an office complex in the middle of it if you’re going to make a great park. We’ve always envisioned trying to keep the whole 306 acres as a park.”

Most Raleigh City Council members, however, say they’re behind the compromise legislation as it goes before the full House in the coming weeks. As the deal took shape, they received regular updates in closed-door meetings with McCormick and the city’s new lobbyist, former Councilman Philip Isley. They didn’t, however, see the final legislation until it was introduced.

“I’m thrilled because I think it really gives us an opportunity to negotiate something fairly and reasonably,” Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said. “Everybody came together behind it on our end.”

Councilman John Odom, the council’s lone Republican and its sole “no” vote on the original lease, said the new bill allows time for due diligence measures he called for in December: environmental assessments, new appraisals and boundary surveys. “That gives us a better picture of what we have,” he said. “I’m glad for that.”

Election looms

The compromise efforts have been a high-stakes game for Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who has said her biggest first-term accomplishment was the original Dix lease signed with Perdue in December.

If it survives opposition in the Senate, the new bill would keep the lease intact until April 2014; new negotiations wouldn’t begin until appraisals and assessments are done in six months. That’s good news for McFarlane, who is campaigning for a second term in October.

McFarlane spent Thursday morning at a joint press conference with Gov. Pat McCrory, trumpeting their bipartisan support for the deal amid a year of strife between cities and state government. The mayor’s new campaign media coordinator was on hand to videotape the announcement at the old Capitol building.

Joey Stansbury – who has argued for months that the park plan should go before Raleigh voters – points out that the cost of Dix won’t be known until sometime in 2014.

“I think it’s a fair question to ask with municipal elections coming this fall,” Stansbury said. “Everybody should encourage a healthy dose of transparency regarding this process: Give us an idea of what Raleigh is choosing to invest.”

School to move?

While the latest legislation rekindles the Dix debate that has been going on for months, the Morehead sale provision brings another group into the discussion: advocates for the blind and visually impaired. They’re trying to determine whether Raleigh’s option to purchase the 40-acre campus on Ashe Avenue would force the school for the blind to move. Since the school has been there since 1923, that could be controversial.

“We haven’t even considered any of that,” Baldwin said. “I’m committed to the Governor Morehead School, and I believe the council is, too. There’s a lot of property, and there could be a lot of uses there.”

That discussion could be premature if Senate Republicans succeed in keeping their version of the Dix bill, which scraps Raleigh’s lease immediately and sets up a legal battle with the city. Senate leader Phil Berger attacked McCrory last week for having “ceded more ground” to Raleigh by offering Morehead as a sweetener.

If the compromise bill passes the House, it will wind up in private conference negotiations with senators. So far, Senate bill sponsors like Union County Republican Tommy Tucker haven’t budged.

“I think the way the lease was put together was not valid and it needs to be cancelled,” Tucker said last week. Only “once that’s done, we can begin honest negotiations.”

Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter

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