What did I think of Mayor Charles Meeker's offer of $10.5 million from Raleigh to buy the 306-acre Dorothea Dix Hospital site? a friend asked archly. I thought it was a good thing, a good opening bid, I said.
To which he said: "It was like, Hey, we can get The Beatles to play at our party. We'll offer 'em $600 apiece! Well, maybe a little less for Ringo."
No, we're not going to get Dix for $10 million, and we're probably not going to get it for twice or thrice or even—but let's not negotiate against ourselves, OK? The point is that Raleigh's finally come to the table to buy, and buy for the purpose of creating a "great destination park"—no more talk of selling off part of it to developers. "It is a site that is so important," Meeker declared at his press conference, "it should not be divided or turned into some office park."
Charles, you have just qualified for a "Dix 306" sign in your yard. Congratulations.
Now the question is, With whom is Raleigh negotiating? Meeker called on Gov. Mike Easley to get involved, adding cryptically that his talks with two close Easley advisors suggest that a solution is "closer than you think."
But Meeker's ace in the hole could be the announced departure of Health and Human Services Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom, much-maligned for the Easley administration's mental-health failures, and her replacement by Dempsey Benton. Yes, that Dempsey Benton, the ex-Raleigh city manager who goes way back with Meeker.
Benton had his critics as manager—some said he was too developer-friendly, unkind remarks that are ancient history now—but he was always known as in command and able to cut the deal. Which perhaps explains the little smile Meeker allowed himself as he mentioned Benton. This is not going to be an easy deal to cut, not in the grand design and certainly not in the fine print of who gets what, when. But in Benton, Meeker's got a counterpart capable of cutting it with him.
First, the grand design. DHHS wants to build offices on Dix Hill. But Meeker and Benton know that a new department headquarters is just right for our up-and-coming downtown, where state parking lots await their makeover. Now all of Dix can be a park, with the historic hospital buildings adapted for uses consistent with the park plan. Is that vague enough for you? Which buildings are historic again? Or is it the whole campus? And by the way, what is the park plan?
Step two, then, we need a park agency—a conservancy, as they call it. Who's on it? Greg Poole, certainly. The soft-spoken leader of the Dix Visionaries, he's already lined up $7 million in prospective donations from wealthy patrons like himself, and he says there's a lot more where that came from once the park's established. Bill Padgett from Dix 306. Jay Spain and Joe Huberman from Friends of Dorothea Dix Park. Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina. He's going to want to preserve the whole campus. But you know, he might have a point.
And we need the chancellor of NCSU, Jim Oblinger. Why? Because unlike his predecessor, the hyper-ambitious Marye Anne Fox, Oblinger's supposed to be a team player. And as Poole said, following Meeker, "great missions require great teamwork."
We don't want development on Dix Hill, but we do want development around it, "framing it," Meeker said, and connecting it to NCSU's vast Centennial Campus. Connecting it physically, I'd add, but also connecting the missions of a research university campus—including its landscape architecture program, its botanical research, and its public administration and psychology departments—with those of a landmark hospital campus reborn as a landmark park.
Finally, and critically, we need some of the money from park-related development on the NCSU land—formerly Dix land—to flow into the state's mental health trust fund. That would be in addition to whatever Raleigh pays upfront, creating a continuing revenue stream instead of just a one-time boost.
How do you do that?
You put the tax guys to work, stash the city's payment in escrow and borrow against it to finance the development with tax-exempt bonds with the profits flowing through the conservancy—
But wait. This is what Meeker and Benton do. Let them cut the deal.
Jay Spain was right when he warned against sacrificing one good cause, Dix park, for the other good cause of desperately needed mental health services. Even if Dix were sold for $100 million or $200 million, and all the money put into mental health, it wouldn't begin to cure what's wrong with the Easley "reforms." Benton will find that out soon enough, if he doesn't know it already.
But for mental-health advocates, the Dix land is their best leverage—and I know sometimes they think it's their only leverage—as they try to be heard in Raleigh. The advocates need to be on the conservancy, too—Ann Akland of Wake-NAMI would be a great choice.
That's because the conservancy isn't for mere land. It's for the heritage of a city, a state capital, that once led the way on mental health. And can again.