Tom Campbell: Two wrongs don’t make it right
Here’s our bottom line on the Dix property feud. Gov. Bev Perdue was wrong on several levels to have committed the state to an agreement over the Dorothea Dix property, but so is the legislature wrong in reneging on the deal.
For starters, Perdue and just about everyone else seemed to have forgotten the master agreement for this property that was developed in the 1990s, adopted by the Council of State and affirmed by the Join Governmental Operations Committee of the legislature. This document states that future state government growth in the Capital City will occur on the Dix property. Either this agreement was forgotten or ignored.
Then there’s the matter of the hospital itself. Mental health reforms, first passed in 2001, are a total, unmitigated and unconscionable disaster. We have completely abandoned the cause Dorothea Dix championed in our state, turning our heads to those who cannot help themselves, pretending they don’t exist or, worse still, admitting we don’t have the intelligence, resources or capacity to help them. Shame on us!
Many voices, ours included, urged the governor and others to go slow on the Dix property until we come to our senses and determine a better course for assisting the mentally ill. We may well want to re-open the hospital that was largely closed because it needed renovation and out of spite toward Wake legislators. If there is even a remote chance we will decide to re-open Dix, it is unwise to develop a theme park on a location where we house and treat those with mental illness.
But the deal itself was bad. We’re talking about 320 acres of prime real estate in downtown Raleigh. While most would agree we don’t want this to become a commercial real estate development, it certainly has value beyond the $84 million appraisal. At this price, an acre of land is valued at $262,000. Prime residential lots of an acre or less in Raleigh sell for $500,000 or better. Granted, we are looking at a lease rather than sale, but taxpayers didn’t get a good deal. It becomes worse when you calculate the net cost to taxpayers.
A large number of employees, including the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, are housed on the Dix campus. As a result of this deal these employees will be moved. The Department of Administration has submitted requests for proposals for more than 1 million square feet of office space to house these employees. Granted, some of the current Dix space needs renovation, but so does most every state-owned building. Class B office space, the classification the state usually rents, can rent for as much as $21 a foot. Do the math. We are leaving buildings we own to move to leased office space because of this Dix deal.
So subtract the meager $500,000 per year we will receive in lease rent from the millions we will have to pay for new office space, and this deal smells really bad. Perdue wanted a legacy as she was leaving office and wanted to circumvent an incoming Republican governor and legislature. She refused to heed many voices urging her to get it right rather than do it quick.
Having said all that, we also have to say what the legislature is currently doing is wrong. When I was growing up you often heard people say, “A man’s word is his bond.” Forget the patriarchal language; the point is as true today as it was then. When you give your word, you follow through unless there are legal reasons not to. Just because our governor and Council of State made a bad deal on our behalf isn’t justification for walking away from it. This doesn’t send good signals to those with whom the state does business. It’s not the first bad deal our state has entered and it likely won’t be the last.
So two (or more) wrongs don’t make it right. Is there no ground here for people of goodwill to find an acceptable solution? We gave away a large chunk of the Dix site to the Farmer’s Market, The Healing Place and the N.C. State Centennial Campus. Surely in those remaining 320 acres there could be plenty of room for the city of Raleigh to develop a park while still leaving room for DHHS and other state employees on the property. Let us reason together.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina state treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of state issues airing Sundays at 5:30 a.m. on WFMY-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.