UPDATE: Raleigh City Council members voted Tuesday afternoon to approve the lease.
In a 7-2 vote, the North Carolina Council of State voted Tuesday to approve the lease of the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus to the City of Raleigh during the next several decades.
The vote fell along party lines, with Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry and Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler voting against the movement. State Auditor Beth Wood abstained, citing the short amount of time she had to review the initiative and that it might come before her office as an audit.
The 325-acre property will be leased to the city at a rate of $500,000 per year, plus a compounded 1.5 percent increase each year to account for inflation. If approved by Raleigh City Council members, the lease would go into effect on Dec. 31 of this year and will be valid for the next 75 years, with a one-time 24-year extension possible.
State offices are allowed to remain on the campus for the next 15 years, with the city getting a discount on the lease rates for as long as those departments remain on the property.
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A Park on the Hill
In 2000, a consulting firm suggested closing the hospital after mental healthcare budgets were slashed and the legislature championed an emphasis on community-based mental healthcare.
Campaigns and lobbying groups such as Friends of Dorothea Dix Park, which counts former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker as a member, pushed early in the Dix debate to create a “destination park” out of the property. Located near Pullen Park and just south of the Boylan Heights neighborhood, the hospital grounds are among the last pieces of undeveloped land downtown.
Attorney General Roy Cooper said as much in his explanation for voting yes Tuesday.
“I think it’s shortsighted to analyze this as a purely economic transaction for the state,” he said. “It’s an investment which has far-reaching implications. It’ll be one of the places to go when North Carolinians visit the Capital City, just like the museums and other attractions that we have.”
Cooper also spoke to economic development that may occur surrounding the property. Open space improves quality of life, he said, and jobs and growth tend to follow.
Some opposed to the measure pointed to the closure of the hospital as the primary reason to resist the lease. Activist and former Dix Hospital employee Hope Turlington passed out copies of an email she sent to state legislators and elected officials urging them not to vote on the lease.
“Our Council of State cannot make an honorable vote to do away with Dix when so many are in need of her help and services at this most critical time of crisis,” Turlington wrote in the email.
However, the hospital officially moved its last patients out in August of this year. Those patients and remaining staff found services at Central Regional Hospital in Butner.
Secretary of State Elaine Marshall said that while the plan was not perfect, that perhaps it was good enough for a vote in the affirmative.
“I believe sometimes the search for perfection can paralyze us,” she said. “This plan of a long-term lease to the city for a reasonable market value is appropriate. I hope that the General Assembly will consider that the funds generated by this will go toward mental health care.”
Lease Value Alarm
Commissioner Berry expressed concern that the lease agreement was not, in fact, a fair market value assessment of the property.
“I believe that this is a raw deal for North Carolina taxpayers all over the state,” she said. “For that reason, at this time … I’ll be voting no.”
Berry also questioned the Council’s right to amend the lease for The Healing Place of Wake County, a substance abuse shelter on the Dix Campus. Lt. Governor Walter Dalton replied that the lease agreement from the state to the city for the property did allow subleases and that The Healing Place’s lease could be amended. Commissioner Berry also voted against amending the lease.
The hospital opened in 1856 and closed 156 years later.
Patients attempting to check in at other state mental hospitals face waits of several days.
Part of the deal struck to close Dix stipulated that UNC Health Care and WakeMed create a 28-bed inpatient facility in Wake County. The development will cost $30 million to start and $10 million during the next five years.
Dix was originally slated to close in 2008, but concerns over safety issues at Central Regional Hospital in Butner and abuse concerns at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro facility forced Dix’s doors to stay open.
The final closure comes after several years of waffling on how the campus would be used. As recently as 2009, the Department of Health and Human Services was calling to have Dix remain open as a stand-alone psychiatric hospital.
Most patient services were relocated to Central Regional Hospital in Butner and Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro.
Some legislators, especially State House Speaker Thom Tillis and State Senate leader Phil Berger, have been vocal about not leasing the property and instead having an outright sale to a private developer.
Governor-elect Pat McCrory said recently it would be best to wait on a decision until the new administration takes over in January. But Perdue says the decision comes after years of deliberation and thought.
“Over and over, from CEOs and from regular people moving in to North Carolina, you hear about the values of the people of North Carolina and the things that we have held sacrosanct,” Perdue said. “One of the things I heard over and over as I began my time of public service was the goal that we should all have to preserve green space and clean air and clean water.”
Preservation, she said, not only is important for conservation efforts, but also for economic development and quality of life.
“This is the right thing to do, from my perspective,” Perdue said. “And I thank all of you for allowing this opportunity to take a really important vote not just for Raleigh, but for North Carolina.”