It’s time to move on Dix Park deal

March 13, 2014 

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Cory Olson, foreground, and Ben Martin of Raleigh relax in hammocks Tuesday, March 11, 2014, at the Dorothea Dix campus in Raleigh. The state’s new appraisal puts a lower value on the property, paving the way for negotiations to begin with Raleigh on a new deal for the city’s park plan.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

There was no mystery in why Republican lawmakers, in control of the General Assembly and the governor’s office for the first time in over a century, wanted to kill a deal that former Gov. Beverly Perdue had made with the City of Raleigh.

Perdue had agreed to let the city lease the 300 acres of the Dorothea Dix property to create a signature downtown park with a spectacular view of the city’s skyline. Park advocates rightly pronounced it an idea akin to New York’s Central Park and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

It was a good deal for all parties: The state would get lease payments over 75 years totaling $68 million, and the money would be used, appropriately, to help the mentally ill, a population once cared for at the state’s former Dorothea Dix mental hospital there. Raleigh would get a park that would serve visitors to the capital from across North Carolina.

But GOP lawmakers called off the deal. They said Perdue had made a foolish bargain that was a bad deal for taxpayers and said Raleigh should pay more. In reality, the maneuver was spurred by a multitude of disputes that Republican leaders had with Perdue, including vetoes and veto overrides. Nixing the park deal was political payback that denied Perdue a popular agreement as she left office.

Governor steps in

To his credit, Gov. Pat McCrory worked out a compromise that suspended the deal but gave state officials and Raleigh leaders a year to agree on new terms.

That negotiating period will expire in June. It could be extended, but there’s no need for that. City and state officials should be able to work something out, period. At least they now are talking.

And it’s beginning to look like, after new appraisals and environmental studies, the original deal was a good one. The new state-sponsored appraisal puts the land value at $66 million, less than the $84 million appraisal of 2011 that Republicans had claimed as their reason for rejecting Perdue’s deal.

Raleigh’s appraisal is $37.45 million.

All land, all park

But there is another hurdle. The McCrory administration may push to retain 60 of the 325 acres for offices for the Department of Health and Human Services. That would diminish a bold plan. The land should be a park and only a park.

The deal should include the entire property, and the city appears prepared to make an arrangement that would return to the state more than the fair appraised value.

Gov. McCrory has had a tough first term so far, being aligned with Republican legislative leaders who have embroiled themselves in divisive issues. The Dix park proposal is a terrific opportunity for the governor and for legislative leaders to step away from partisanship and do something good for the city of Raleigh and the state.

This is their chance to demonstrate that there really are times when politics can be put aside. And rising above politics would in the end be smart politics for Republicans with the 2014 elections approaching and the 2016 presidential year not far away. Their popularity ratings are low indeed after the tumultuous legislative session didn’t go over well with the people of North Carolina.

In Raleigh, the political buzz is that Republicans plan to make their short session later this spring a calm one, avoiding actions certain to prompt controversy.

Settling the Dix property deal would calm the hard feelings the last session left behind. And it would preserve for generations a wonderful open space for forgetting the worries and the tensions of politics and life.

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