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Raleigh Mayor McFarlane and her fellow park advocates have just 10 months to flesh out their vision for Dix Park and get Planner Pope to see it with them.

Dix Park: the daytime drama, starring Art Pope as the negotiator 

In the continuing daytime drama that is Dix Park, last week's episode featured Gov. Pat McCrory in a cameo appearance at the Capitol with his "good friend," Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane. The two were all smiles as McCrory announced a "further partnership" regarding the 325-acre Dix Hill property, one that begins—strangely—with the state ignoring Raleigh's contract for the land.

It was the kind of tender partnership you get when the state, with all the power, ties the city's hands and marches it before the cameras.

So where does Raleigh's plan for a "destination park" on Dix Hill stand today?

Cue the bass instruments. There's a new star in this show, one with a sinister past and motives unknown. Art Pope, McCrory's budget director and megabucks financier of the right-wing Republican empire that is running state government, will decide the park question. What he will decide, I don't know.

As a park supporter, I'm hoping Pope will prove the surprise hero who, playing against type, delivers a great public benefit despite his skinflint nature. Or, he could be the villain who kills our dreams.

Previously on Dix Park, McFarlane and former Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, signed a long-term lease: 75 years, renewable for 24 more for Raleigh to develop the state-owned property as a park. (Yearly payments start at $500,000 and increase, but are less as long as the Department of Health and Human Services stays there.) Though the lease was valid in every way—pay no attention to the made-up Republican reasons why it wasn't—when Perdue left office, the Republican Senate passed a bill to condemn it. Tear up the lease, that is.

That was in March. Last week a House committee—the House is also under Republican control—rewrote the Senate bill to postpone tearing up the lease until April 1, 2014.

Pope, making his entrance on the Dix issue, told the committee that over the next 10 months the state and city will negotiate anew—with Pope representing McCrory and the executive branch.

The city considers its lease to be legally binding, Pope remarked, but he doesn't. However, if, as Pope expects, their negotiations produce a better deal for both sides, no one will care if the lease was valid.

This is true only in the sense that, if the state wants to renege, there's no practical way to prevent it. As one high-ranking city official said sourly, Raleigh could sue and win, say, $20 million in damages from the state. But what would stop a peeved General Assembly from getting back at Raleigh with $20 million or more sliced from the city's taxing authority?

The answer, with this Republican bunch, is nothing.

As our saga unfolds, two issues will be paramount. One is whether Dix Hill will continue to be headquarters for DHHS and 1,800 of its employees. If yes, it's hard to see how any park plan can succeed. The second is whether the deal adds in a meaningful way to the state's underfunded mental health programs.

As negotiator plenipotentiary, Pope will be the decider on both.

Pope told the House committee that he foresees Raleigh acquiring, by lease or purchase, "substantially all of the land" on Dix Hill except 30 acres needed for DHHS offices and possible future expansion. He also threw out the possibility that the state might part with some of the Governor Morehead School for the Blind site across Western Boulevard, another 40 acres.

The problem is that DHHS occupies the prime 30 acres in the center of Dix, where park buildings should be. Raleigh's lease calls for DHHS to leave gradually, and there are many other places in the city where the agency could be consolidated in newer, better offices. If DHHS remains, why would Raleigh pay anything for the grassy portions of a state office complex?

Pope, careful not to use the "I" word about who's calling the shots, said "no final decision has been made" whether DHHS will stay or relocate. The issue is negotiable, but "the indication would be" that DHHS will stay, he added.

I must say, leaving DHHS officials with the best land in Raleigh as a prize for the disastrous mental health "reforms" that closed the Dix psychiatric hospital without providing promised community facilities in its stead strikes me as immoral.

Which leads to the second issue: Raleigh, whether it pays "fair market value" for Dix, as Republican legislators insist, or the lesser amount called for in its lease, cannot make a meaningful difference to state mental health funding. Even the $1.6 million annual rent that Senate Bill 334 posits as fair would be lost in a mental health budget counted in the billions.

On the other hand, Pope is in the best possible position to determine what new mental health programs are needed in Wake County and get them funded. Raleigh negotiators should help him figure it out.

One final point: A look at the map of the Dix campus shows not 325 acres, but 500 or more, if you include the Spring Hill land given to N.C. State University for future Centennial Campus expansion, plus the State Farmers Market, plus the Morehead School, which connects to Raleigh's Pullen Park.

Over the 50- or 100-year planning horizon for a great park, all of this land can be integrated as Raleigh's Central Park, and all of it is ultimately under the control of state government. Meaning that it's under the control of our park planner extraordinaire, Art Pope.

But just in case our hero doesn't have park-visioning skills in his repertoire, Mayor McFarlane and her fellow park advocates in Raleigh have just 10 months to flesh out their vision for Dix Park and get Planner Pope to see it with them.

Then, if everyone's still smiling, who knows? Pat McCrory might put in another appearance.

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