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The Dix disaster 

Wake County Republican lawmakers have let down their constituents

The former Dorothea Dix site

Photo by Lissa Gotwals

The former Dorothea Dix site

I'm addressing these remarks to my old friends in the Wake County Republican Party, but especially to Wake Commissioners Joe Bryan and Paul Coble and state Sen. Neal Hunt.

Each of them might have been expected to stand with their constituents in the battle for Dix Park, but instead they cast their lot against their own county, the City of Raleigh and the park itself.

First, Bryan, the current chairman of the Wake commissioners, and Coble, the past chairman, wrote to The News & Observer arguing that Raleigh wasn't paying the state enough for the Dorothea Dix Hospital property. Despite having a valid lease for the land, they argued Raleigh ought to be forced to pay more.

When the bill to rip up Raleigh's lease came to the Senate Appropriations Committee, Hunt claimed he supports Dix Park. Nonetheless, he spoke in favor of the bill, while offering a half-hearted amendment that was hooted down—literally, on a voice vote—by his rabid Republican colleagues.

One such Republican, Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville who chairs the powerful Senate rules committee, handed Hunt his marching orders when Apodaca snarled that the General Assembly would do no favors for Wake County.

Face it, the Senate Republican leadership, including Apodaca and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger of Rockingham, have declared war on Raleigh. They have told their troops, most of whom hail from rural counties, to take their stations.

Hunt saluted and went to his station. A former Raleigh city councillor and a constructive conservative, Hunt is now so intent on making his bones with the rightwingers who run the state Republican Party that he's forgotten who elected him to the Senate. Or he doesn't care.

As for Bryan and Coble, I'll borrow what Jim Goodmon, CEO of Capitol Broadcasting, said last week to the sponsors of the bill to renege on the lease. "You should hear yourselves," Goodmon scolded.

Joe Bryan and Paul Coble, do you hear yourselves? You, who complain that the state shortchanges Wake County and Raleigh on school aid and highway funding—billions of dollars there, mates—want Raleigh citizens to send more millions to the state?

You rail against higher taxes, but the state should tax Raleigh citizens more?

Like Hunt, Bryan once showed moderate tendencies. Now he's so eager to get a foot on the state Republican ladder that he walks in lockstep with Coble, the anti-everything conservative. He's joined Coble's attacks on the Wake school system, public transportation and Coble's aversion to a world-class Dix Park.

Coble and Bryan didn't explicitly say they oppose a world-class park. But what they did say amounts to the same thing. Raleigh should be offered a chance to acquire just "a portion of the Dix property," they wrote, not all 325 acres as contained in the lease.

And, they added, Raleigh should be required to pay a "fair market price" for the land up-front and not be allowed to spread it over 75 years with lease payments.

The Coble-Bryan plan, like the Berger-Apodaca plan, is intended not merely to make a Dix Park pricier for Raleigh but to kill the park plan altogether.

Assume for the moment I'm wrong about that. Assume that the crocodile tears shed by Coble and Bryan over the shabby treatment of the mentally ill in North Carolina really tell us why they want to jack up the price on Dix. "The state would benefit by receiving the value of the property in a lump sum," they wrote, "which it could use to improve mental health services ... in the centrally located capital county."

Well, commissioners, if you're genuine, Wake County has $21 million available for park purchases—Open Space funds approved by the voters—and nothing is in the way of your Republican commissioners board voting to add it to Raleigh's payments.

Ante up, commissioners, and we'll know you're serious. Until then, please stop.

Why are powerful state Republicans so determined to kill Dix Park? Partly it's their hatred for former Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat who signed the lease on her way out of office. Partly it's the deep-seated antagonism of rural Republicans toward big-city folks and Raleigh, in particular. Raleigh to them is the place where Democratic politicians have been living too well for too long—and must be punished.

The bill to invalidate the lease is a disaster for the obvious reason that, as Goodmon said, if legislators can dissolve any deal they don't like—even if a governor signed it with Council of State approval—where does that stop? No business will trust the state's word, Goodmon said. "This doesn't make sense, and it isn't honorable."

Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union, glibly promised that Raleigh would be allowed to renegotiate, albeit for more money and fewer than 325 acres. State offices would remain on Dix Hill, and some of the land would be sold for private development, according to the bill. Otherwise, lease opponents argue, the state would be paying for a city park.

But by taking a lease for 75 years, with payments totaling $68 million, Raleigh is assuming all of the risk of park development—and paying for the responsibility.

Goodmon guessed that the park will cost $100 million–$125 million. I think it'll be far more.

Whatever it costs, the fact is that neither the city nor the state will pay for most of it. Private donors will pay for the park through nonprofits that could create, say, a technology center, an arboretum or an amphitheater. A world-class park evolves; detailed planning hasn't even begun.

One thing is certain, however, after a decade of debate over whether all or part of Dix should be a park: Raleigh and Wake County residents want a true destination park because of the value it will add to everything around it. Don't think of this as a cost. It's a benefit—to the city, the county and the state.

But what donor will give a dime to build anything at Dix Park if the General Assembly reserves the right to yank back the land?

No, this bill, and the Coble-Bryan plan, is a killer. And a killer for their own county.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The Dix disaster."

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