Raleigh, N.C. — Groups that back the idea of turning the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus in downtown Raleigh into a park on Monday pledged $3 million to the city to help plan the conversion.
The Council of State, which is made of the 10 North Carolina officials elected statewide, is set to meet 9 a.m. on Tuesday to vote on a deal that would lease Dix's 325 acres to Raleigh. The group has the power to approve and reject deals involving state property.
Watch the Council of State's meeting Tuesday morning live on WRAL.com beginning at 9 a.m.
If the Council of State approves the deal, the Raleigh City Council will discuss the matter behind closed doors Tuesday afternoon, City Manager Russell Allen said. Any vote to accept the lease arrangement would have to be made in open session.
The A.J. Fletcher Foundation committed $1 million toward the planning effort, and Gregory Poole Jr., a retired developer who leads Dix Visionaries, said other supporters would donate another $2 million to draft a master plan for the park.
The foundation is led by Jim Goodmon, chief executive of Capitol Broadcasting Co., the parent company of WRAL, and his wife, Barbara Goodmon.
"This area is a big place, and it deserves big ideas," Jim Goodmon said at a news conference on the Dix property. "This area deserves something like this."
The Dix campus is owned by the state of North Carolina. It was once home to a mental hospital, but the campus is now mainly occupied by Department of Health and Human Resources offices.
Gov. Beverly Perdue plans to move those offices away from Dix and consolidate them with other DHHS offices throughout Wake County. That plan would have taken state workers in 60 different buildings and placed them in a total of five or six.
A proposal calls for the state to lease the campus to Raleigh for up to 99 years. As a condition of the lease, the city will lease back to the state the office space it currently occupies until a consolidation plan can be worked out and executed.
Details of the lease revealed in the Council of State's agenda show that the city would pay $500,000 per year to the state. The price for the lease would rise by 1.5 percent every year, but the city would get a discount for any property that the state is still using.
Poole said the park would be a boon for the regional economy and would rival Central Park in New York and Millennium Park in Chicago as destinations for visitors.
"Great cities in America have great parks," he said.
Quoting Dorothea Dix herself, who came to Raleigh in the 1840s to scout out a site for a mental health facility, Poole said the campus "gives us a commanding view of the city and is believed to be very healthy ground."
"This is a park now. It needs to be preserved. It can be North Carolina's jewel," he said. "North Carolina has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save this jewel. If we don't save it, it's gone. I do not suspect it will ever be the park at the size or magnitude that we're talking about."
Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane hasn't taken a public position on the lease deal, but she posted a Facebook message Monday urging residents to phone and email Council of State members to express support for the deal.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a world-class Destination Park in the heart of NC," McFarlane wrote. "Tomorrow the NC Council of State will meet, and before that vote they need to hear your support for the Park."
The lease plan is not uncontroversial.
The Dix property is valued at $86 million, and some groups say leasing it to Raleigh isn't a good deal for state taxpayers, especially those who live outside the Triangle.
"We'd like to see more options available," said Jeff Mixon, of Americans for Prosperity. "To rush it through here at this late hour of the governor's term seems to be shortchanging voters and taxpayers."
Lucy Bode of Dix Visionaries said the plan is a good investment in tourism and tax dollars in the coming decades, noting this site will be a park for the whole state.
"I encourage people to think of this as their park, whether they live in Asheville or the coast," Bode said. "This is their capital city, and this is going to be the finest park that North Carolina has ever seen."
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said that an analysis by the General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal and Program Evaluation Divisions values the lease deal at $22.6 million, far below the appraised value of the Dix campus.
"Even Gov. Perdue’s senior advisers readily admit her plan shortchanges North Carolina taxpayers,” Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a statement.
Her and other Republican legislative leaders have called on Perdue to delay action on the plan until Republican Gov.-elect Pat McCrory has a chance to review the deal. McCrory has said that he would like time to review it.
The Dix Visionaries lists McCrory as a member of their "advisory council." A McCrory spokesman called that statement "inaccurate," saying that the governor-elect never formally committed support to the group.
Poole said that he spoke to McCrory just as he was leaving office as mayor of Charlotte in 2008.
"He said to me, 'I wish that I had the same opportunity here in Charlotte,'" Poole recalled, saying that he later followed up with a phone call.
Poole said that McCrory was very supportive on both occasions but could not recall or document whether McCrory had agreed to have his name listed as an adviser to the group.