Local News

Meeker wants Dix land deal before leaving office

Posted October 6, 2011 5:39 p.m. EDT
Updated October 6, 2011 7:53 p.m. EDT

— Raleigh's outgoing mayor says he hopes to get a land deal worked out with the state before he leaves office that would allow the city to buy the 306 acres of land currently occupied by the state's oldest mental health hospital.

Charles Meeker has been in negotiations to turn the Dorothea Dix Hospital Campus into a park similar to New York's Central Park when the mental health hospital eventually closes its doors and moves patients and operations to other state facilities.

"We’ve worked on making Dorothea Dix a destination park for more than five years, and hopefully we’re getting pretty close," Meeker said Thursday. "I'd very much like to wrap this project up before I leave office next month."

Both the governor and the Council of State must agree to sell the land for a deal to go through.

"I really think the state view has changed. The state really has adopted the idea that a destination park is the highest and best use of that land, because it would not just serve Wake County, which is 10 percent of the state revenue, but really the whole state," Meeker said.

There's agreement there, he added. The challenge is finding the right price.

Five years ago, the city offered $10 million to buy the land, but the mayor said he thinks that even though the real estate market is down some, the ultimate price will be above the initial offer.

"The (City Council) has given me a number to work from, and I’m hoping to meet with the governor soon to see if we can work something out," the mayor said. "We need to hear about the range and see if it's something the city could afford."

It's still unclear when the hospital will close and move from the campus.

Although the hospital cares for less than 3 dozen patients, more than 1,300 employees for the state Department of Health and Human Services still work in other buildings on the property.

DHHS officials have said there are no plans to leave.

Meeker says the state could keep the existing employees there for 5 to 10 years but eventually would leave the campus.

For years, there has been a lot of public debate and campaigning about what to do with the prime piece of real estate near downtown.

Developers have eyed the property for apartments and condominiums and retail space, but the state of the economy has all but silenced those plans, says Gregory Poole, founder of Dix Visionaries, a group of local business and community leaders wanting to preserve the land.

"The local developers who would ordinarily salivate over developing this and buying it for profit have joined with us to ask that it be preserved," Poole said.

The group, which gathered local business and civic leaders together Thursday evening at the North Carolina Museum of Art to support preserving the campus, wants to see a park with some kind of anchor – such as a botanical garden, aquarium or museum – that would attract tourists. They liken it to something similar to Atlanta's Piedmont Park or Chicago's Millennium Park.

"We just feel a burden on our shoulders from our forefathers, saying, 'Hey, carry the load. Let's continue to plan, let’s continue to be bold, brave, visionary and leave this place a better community than we found it,'" Poole said. "So that’s our call."