Arts & Culture

Sean Malone: Dorothea Dix Park’s dream shepherd

A view of downtown Raleigh is visible as Katie Hertel with the City of Raleigh talks about the history of the Dorothea Dix Hospital on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. File Photo
A view of downtown Raleigh is visible as Katie Hertel with the City of Raleigh talks about the history of the Dorothea Dix Hospital on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. File Photo

Right now, Dorothea Dix Park is a dream factory. The 308-acre site about a mile west of downtown, which was formerly home to a psychiatric hospital, could be just about anything imaginable.

Overseeing the process of determining what Dix might someday be is 47-year-old Sean Malone, who just stepped into the job of first president and CEO of Dix Park Conservancy – a non-profit organization that will support the city of Raleigh in its efforts to plan, develop and operate Dorothea Dix Park. It’s a process that will not move quickly.

“I don’t think I’ve been to enough meetings yet to answer how long this will take,” Malone said in an interview. “The City and a collaborative executive committee are working on selecting a firm to lead creation of the master plan now, deciding how best to serve this community and state and what we’ll create. That process will take a couple of years and tell us timelines for implementation and building.”

Malone is moving to Raleigh from Milwaukee, where he previously served four years as president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Along with fund-raising, he oversaw a preservation masterplan for the late great architect’s Taliesin West compound in Arizona that included turning it into a net-zero energy site.

Raising money will be a large part of Malone’s job here in Raleigh, too.

“Fund-raising is critical if you’re going to do meaningful public-benefit-focused projects,” Malone said. “That always involves philanthropy, and I enjoy that – helping people connect their philanthropy to something that will affect lives and make deep impact.”

While the Wright Foundation position was one with a specific mission and time frame, the Dix job is more open-ended. Malone calls the opportunity to conceptualize Dix Park and bring it to fruition “a once-in-a-lifetime project.”

“I wasn’t looking to stop what I was doing,” Malone said. “But something with this kind of potential doesn’t come along all that often. I am beyond excited at what it’s going to become, and to be a part of this community. There will be multiple phases to this project, working hand-in-hand with the city. It’s not a short-term move.”

The roots of the Dix project go back to 2002, when state officials announced that Dorothea Dix Hospital would close and its operations moved to Butner. That triggered widespread interest in the acreage, from developers who proposed an array of housing and commercial projects for the site.

From the start, the city of Raleigh was interested in turning the land into a park. In 2012, then-Gov. Beverly Perdue struck a deal in which the city would lease Dix’s land for $500,000 per year for 99 years.

Claiming that wasn’t a fair price for the state, the N.C. Senate overturned the deal in 2013. Ultimately, the city and state agreed on a $52 million purchase price in 2015 (paid for by a property-tax rate increase).

“There was a lot of complexity to get where we are today,” Malone said. “But where we are is an exceptionally positive place. I’ve not met anyone who isn’t excited about what this can be and how it can serve the whole state.”

As to what features you might eventually see at Dix, that’s going to take some time.

“My focus now is on listening to people’s wish lists,” Malone said. “Some of that will end up happening. But I also need to listen to people explain why they want what they do – what do they want to accomplish? What’s the impact? The park can’t be everything that everyone will come up with. But if we focus on why people want what they do and what needs of the community can be met, we can touch on all of it.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to better clarify the role of the Dix Park Conservancy.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi