Dix lease debate pits Raleigh business leaders against advocates for mentally ill

Posted March 25, 2013

— Local business leaders and others told Wake County lawmakers Monday that they need to stand behind Raleigh's lease of the former Dorothea Dix site, while advocates for the mentally ill said a psychiatric hospital should be returned to the 325-acre site.

Under the terms of a 99-year lease signed in December by Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane and former Gov. Beverly Perdue, the city would pay $500,000 a year – plus annual escalators – for the Dix site, allowing officials to convert it into a major urban park.

Republican lawmakers criticized the deal, which they said didn't provide the state with a fair return. They also said it would end up costing taxpayers money because state Department of Health and Human Services offices at the site would have to be moved.

Senate Bill 334, which is expected to be debated on the Senate floor Tuesday, calls for the lease to be renegotiated at a fair-market price, with the proceeds designated for mental health programs. Also, DHHS would be allowed to maintain its offices on part of the site.

Greg Poole Jr., the head of the Dix Visionaries group of park boosters, said the Dix lease shouldn't be a partisan issue, noting that both Democrats and Republicans in the area have backed the idea of converting the site to a park.

"People of honor and integrity do not back out on their word," Poole said. "Demonstrate that, when the state of North Carolina signs a contract, it has value beyond an election."

Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said the development of a major park near downtown would benefit the region in the years to come, and Temple Sloan, founder of the Carquest auto parts chain and chairman of Highwoods Properties Inc., said he was appalled that the state would break its word.

"Is this the image you want of our state?" Sloan asked lawmakers.

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Bill sponsors said the Dix land was given to the state in the mid-1800s for the benefit of the mentally ill, and the state needs to stick to that goal. They also said the lease gives the state the right to condemn the property for public use, so they are only exercising that right.

Half a dozen advocates said they agreed. 

Ann Akland, speaking for the Wake County chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said the Raleigh area already has plenty of parkland, but the state needs more in-patient options for people with mental illness.

Akland and others said North Carolina has already broken its word many times when dealing with the mentally ill, promising more treatment resources but only cutting back services.

"These bills are the only things that acknowledge that we have sick people in North Carolina," advocate Hope Turlington said.

"The Dix property issue boils down to an unfair battle of the haves and the have-nots," volunteer Louise Fisher said. "Most park advocates have money and a voice. The mentally ill have no money and no voice. They are simply at your mercy."

"We can only honor Dorothea Dix by once again promoting mental health care as a primary source for this property," advocate Steve Church said.

Rep. Jim Fulghum, R-Wake, said the state never should have shuttered Dorothea Dix Hospital. Still, state officials shouldn't try to break a lease, he said, and there needs to be some compromise.

"There's plenty of room to develop a park while leaving room for DHHS," Fulghum said.

Joseph Huberman, who since 2003 has been part of groups studying the conversion of Dix to a park, said  all 325 acres need to be used for a park. He noted most of the initial Dix land has been given away in the past to North Carolina State University, the State Farmers Market and other uses.

"Don't set the precedent of being the first legislature in history to destroy the credibility of the word of the state of North Carolina," Huberman said.

Brian Anderson, a financial services executive, said trying to renege on the Dix lease is just the latest example of the "debacle" the legislative session has become.

"Do you really wish to revoke a signed contract simply because you don't like it?" Anderson asked. "Don't overreach this session. ... Don't let this become spite."

Dozens of people spoke about the Dix issue and other legislative proposals during the two-hour hearing, and lawmakers said those who didn't have a chance to speak could address the delegation at its April 8 meeting.


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  • coombs1973 Mar 26, 2013

    Why are the Raleigh business owners at odd with the mentally ill advocates? Because it is all about money to them, they do not care about parks except it increases the value of homes around parks and throughout Raleigh. Around the park means they will buy the homes for pennies as they are older & small homes & replace with more "raleighwood" homes. There is a maximum prison just across the way ... nice area for park. BUT most important, the land and it's value was stolen from the mentally ill. Many who can not defend themselves and the others who pay their taxes and work in Raleigh. The land belonged to the Mental Health department and should be sold & used to build more needed mental health facilities. The "rent" from Raleigh is not enough to even begin to fix NC mental health issues. Raleigh & NC should be ashamed of their unconcern for the ill - many pushed into homelessness. Raleigh has tons of parks .... how many mental health homes can you name or find?

  • gwiesner Mar 26, 2013

    Dix was being closed long before these other issues came up. The buildings are energy inefficient, have hazardous materials in them and have poor ventilation. It would cost more to "fix" them than to build new. That is only a small part of the reason Dix was closed, though. We have made advances in mental health care, just as in physical care. Huge institutions that warehouse patients are not the best care. The ideal is a home atmosphere and integration into the community. Hospitals should be used only for acute care. That being said, mental health is woefully underfunded everywhere. Any funds derived from a park (and they could be considerable) should be dedicated ONLY to providing better care. A legal contract that is thrown out is going to hurt NC credibility, including with entities that purchase our city and state bond issues. Amend the agreement to direct the funds, but don't reneg on a contract. BTW, that evil development is the quickest way to add mjobs and boost our economy.

  • gwiesner Mar 26, 2013

    Visitors from all over North Carolina, the US and the world come to Raleigh, just as they do to other areas of the state. They come for business and to attend events. 1,000's of children (although perhaps not those of happymom) visit the capital each year to learn about government and see the museums. Wake County has 10% of the population of NC and provides a higher than average percentage of the state tax revenue. Many students attend college in Raleigh. It seems things have changed since the Andy Griffith show was on the air, when Mayberry-ites were proud of their state capital and wanted it to be a jewel for all. A great city park, like those in San Francisco, New Orleans and New York, is important to everyone, providing a place even those with few dollars to spend can go to relax. Studies from all over the world have shown that urban areas are good providers of jobs and education, but citizens need green space to preserve their mental health.

  • ILoveDowntownRaleigh Mar 26, 2013

    "I do have a problem with the entire state basically subsidizing a local Raleigh park." - happymom

    And I have a problem with the city of Raleigh subsidizing mental health care for the entire state.

  • happymom Mar 26, 2013

    "art festivals bigger than the NC state fair, and join crowds of 30,000 in the amphitheater (picture the Rose Garden amphitheater but 5 x bigger) to watch symphony concerts that are free, subsidized by corporate sponsors.

    Fine. We'll do without. ILoveDowntownRaleigh"

    And one more thing... I used to live in Houston, TX. They had something similar. Guess who financed it? Houston- not the entire state. If Raleigh wants a part for those sorts of things, I have no problem with it.

    I do have a problem with the entire state basically subsidizing a local Raleigh park.

  • ILoveDowntownRaleigh Mar 26, 2013

    "see the latest civitas poll on this?" - barbrobertson70

    are you kidding me, Barb? We should take Art Pope's opinion and call it a "poll"?

  • happymom Mar 26, 2013

    "I come from Cincinnati, a midwestern city about the same size as Raleigh, and migrated here in the 1980s in the hope of a better economy. Today, my old home town has a much lower unemployment rate and a long list of public amenities that simply don not exist here. But this post is not about regrets.

    Like Raleigh, Cincinnati has a bluff just southwest of downtown. On the bluff is a park called Eden. Each year, tens of thousands come from all over the midwest and as far away as Europe come to visit the botanical conservatory, see acres of spring daffodils, fly kites, launch model sailboats on Eden Lake, enjoy art festivals bigger than the NC state fair, and join crowds of 30,000 in the amphitheater (picture the Rose Garden amphitheater but 5 x bigger) to watch symphony concerts that are free, subsidized by corporate sponsors.

    Fine. We'll do without."

    NC is not Ohio. People here go to the beach or the mountains. They do not travel to the center of the state for vacation.

  • Guy Mar 26, 2013

    We are at an apex of thought on this matter and have before us the only chance to make the right decision. Lets move Pullen park to Dix and give the now Pullen Park land to the college.

  • luannlittle Mar 26, 2013

    Having worked in a building on the Dix Campus thirty years ago, the cost to upfit and modernize these building would be overwhelming. That is probably the reason that they decided to move the services elsewhere. The legistlature has not made a committment to mental health, in fact they have already reduced the number of needy people that can get health care through their actions of the last two months. Anyone who thinks the motivation for this bill is anything but revenge really needs to look closely at the facts and all the planning that has gone into this park the last few years. This was not hasty on anyone's part. The mental health community should not trust this legislature to get any benefit from this bill.

  • Deb1003 Mar 26, 2013

    "Pits Raleigh business leaders against advocates for the mentally ill" Wow, that tells a lot. Seems as though the business leaders will gain a ton of money if the Bev "deal" goes through.