Opinion: Daily Journal

Dirty Politics on Dix Hill

The mission statement of Dix306.org, a lobbying group pushing to preserve a lease struck in December between the Perdue administration and the city of Raleigh, reads, “Our goal is to save all 306 acres of the Dorothea Dix Campus for a World Class Destination Park for future generations.”

What sounds like a noble, selfless, forward-looking vision is in fact a bunch of hooey.

A Senate bill that would renegotiate this sweetheart deal has drawn lots of attention, as Democrats accuse Republicans of trashing the state’s ability to negotiate in good faith. At a March 21 committee hearing, Raleigh broadcaster, property developer, and liberal activist Jim Goodmon launched into a patronizing lecture, chastising Republicans for their alleged double-dealing. Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, then threw a tantrum and seemed ready to jump Goodmon.

Meantime, angry local liberals used a March 25 public hearing at the General Assembly to call plans to redo the lease “dirty politics.” If anyone has engaged in dirty politics, it’s the crowd who rushed the 75-year lease through state government as Gov. Bev Perdue was heading out the door.

Despite the spin from Democratic lawmakers, Raleigh officials, and local developers, the current deal is a gift of valuable state property to Raleigh that comes with a hefty price tag Raleigh residents largely will not bear.

Imagine the outrage among the political elite if an outgoing Republican governor leased a valuable state asset for pennies on the dollar to a city that planned to reuse it for high-end housing or commercial development. That scenario is no different than what’s going on with Dix.

First things first. This is not a business contract. It’s an agreement between two entities of government, and Perdue conceded in December that the General Assembly or the McCrory administration could scrap the lease. Senate Bill 334 would do that.

The state’s interests were not well represented by the outgoing governor. Under the lease, the city would pay the state $500,000 the first year, with payments increasing by 1.5 percent annually, generating $68 million over the 75-year term.

Backers of S.B. 334 say that’s below market value. But there’s no way of determining “market value” because bidders will not be allowed to place offers on the land and determine its actual worth.

That $68 million price tag does seem low, however. State taxpayers would have to relocate roughly 2,000 Department of Health and Human Services employees from the Dix campus to other offices. Those offices would have to be built or leased, at additional taxpayer expense.

Moreover, the agreement would violate the spirit if not the letter of the original 1850s deed establishing the Dix property “in trust for the use and the benefit of the North Carolina State Hospital for the Insane.”

To be sure, state lawmakers have breached that trust before — most notably when former Govs. Jim Hunt and Jim Martin shifted control of 800 acres of the property to N.C. State University for its Centennial Campus. And the state closed Dix Hospital last year, moving its remaining patients to the Central Regional Hospital in Butner.

It also seems clear that Raleigh’s movers and shakers envision much more than a “world-class destination park” for Dix Hill. Goodmon made boatloads of money developing the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, and the Dix crowd in Raleigh wants to redevelop buildings on the site to accommodate museums, offices, and cafés — generating money for city coffers and local developers.

S.B. 334 would restore a 2007 state plan for the parcel, leaving the DHHS workers in place, and leasing roughly 200 acres as a park, dedicating lease revenues for mental health services. If that’s dirty politics, let’s have more of it.

Rick Henderson is managing editor of Carolina Journal.