The North Carolina Senate budget includes at least one surprise for state employees: Department of Health and Human Services workers at the Dorothea Dix location would have a much longer commute if the budget passes.
The Senate proposes $250 million to construct a new administrative facility in Granville County for DHHS employees currently working at the Dix location in Raleigh.
Sen. Ralph Hise told The News & Observer on Wednesday that senators have not designated exactly where the relocated DHHS offices would be, but he said they are looking at state-owned land in Butner as well as 527 acres that Granville County proposes to donate in a business park for the project.
“Granville County is excited by the prospect of the project locating in Granville County. This project will be transformative for Granville County and the region,” Granville County Manager Michael Felts said in an email to The N&O Tuesday evening.
Felts said that the county board of commissioners will hold a special meeting Wednesday to discuss it in more detail. He sent a letter Tuesday to state officials on behalf of the commissioners detailing the land donation in Triangle North Granville Business and Industrial Park, known as Triangle North Granville. The park is located in both Granville and Vance counties, with three acres of it fronting Interstate 85, Felts wrote. It gets sewer and water from the city of Oxford.
Vance-Granville Community College is five miles from the business park and offers courses in health sciences and human services, which Felts told state officials could be a partner with DHHS for training and education for staff and prospective employees.
The state sold 307 acres to the city of Raleigh in 2017 for $52 million for what is becoming Dix Park. DHHS offices remained on site. When the park land was sold, state offices were expected to remain there for several years via leasing it from the city.
Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican and the Senate’s deputy president pro tempore, said the state “practically gave away” the Dix property to the city of Raleigh, and starting looking for places to relocate including property on Blue Ridge Road in Raleigh.
“We’ve known we have to find a new home for them,” he said.
Up to 2,000 workers affected
This wouldn’t be the only state headquarters to move just outside the Triangle. Hundreds of state employees working at the Division of Motor Vehicles headquarters in Raleigh are affected by its upcoming move to Rocky Mount, The N&O previously reported.
The State Employees Association of North Carolina compared the proposal to move DHHS to the DMV move.
“Much like the DMV move, this would cause the state to lose many well-trained career employees. But unlike the DMV move, this would add significant traffic to already congested roads. And we cannot imagine that citizens traveling those roads on a daily basis now would appreciate this,” SEANC Government Relations Director Ardis Watkins said in a written statement.
The move could affect up to 2,000 employees, according to SEANC.
The population of Granville County is 60,115, according to the U.S. Census. Dix Park is about 40 miles from Granville County, so about an hour’s drive away.
Lower costs in Granville?
The Dix Park master plan for the open space and buildings was revealed earlier this year. The park has drawn thousands of visitors to its sunflower field in 2018, daffodils this spring and hip-hop star J. Cole’s Dreamville Fest in April.
Existing buildings in the master plan include a former mental health hospital. The hospital closed in 2012 and many staff and patients moved to Central Regional Hospital in Butner. It is one of three state psychiatric hospitals. Butner is a small town in Granville County that was once a U.S. Army camp.
Hise, who serves on the Senate’s HHS appropriations committee, said that Granville County has a lower cost of living for employees and lower costs associated with operations instead of staying in Raleigh.
“There are great benefits from moving state complexes out,” he said. The Raleigh job market is already rich, Hise said, and moving DHHS “allows [people living in] rural areas in the state to have options to live and work in rural areas.” Hise said he doesn’t think anyone would lose their jobs related to the move.
Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham Democrat who also serves on the HHS committee, said the move would be an “interesting opportunity for Granville County.” McKissick’s district included Granville County until this year.
McKissick said Granville would be an excellent site, saying it is in relatively close proximity to Raleigh. The commute is shorter than it is to Rocky Mount, he said, referencing the DMV move.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “It’s a type of relocation that’s viable and feasible and should be fully evaluated.”
McKissick said he’d leave it to the state to evaluate if land in Butner or the business park land offered by the county would be the best location.
Sen. Mike Woodard, also a Durham Democrat, but whose district also includes Granville County, said Granville “has been a wonderful host community to a number of federal and state agencies.”
He also said the Senate will have to look carefully at the demands on Granville County’s infrastructure, particularly the roads as commuters drive north.
“That’s going to be more traffic on [Interstate] 85,” Woodard said.
“If this item stays in the budget, we will have to very carefully consider all the implications of siting a new DHHS headquarters there,” he said.
The Senate budget authorizes $250 million total for the project, with $17 million in the 2019-2020 fiscal year and $60 million the following year.
Hise said he wasn’t sure of the timeline for the project, but it could be five years. Initial money would go toward architects and site studies, he said. Some DHHS employees working at satellite offices outside the Dix campus wouldn’t move, he said.
The Senate budget is still just a proposal, and the House and Senate will still need to negotiate the final budget they submit to the governor.
On Wednesday, Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Forsyth County Republican and one of the House budget writers, said in an email he has not seen the Senate budget yet so cannot comment on the proposed move.
“But I look forward to having a productive discussion about the move and what are the key factors in making this recommendation,” Lambeth said.