Before COVID-19 altered life as we knew it, 2020 was supposed to be the year Raleigh taxpayers cosigned the biggest check in the city’s history: an ambitious bond package that included funds for affordable housing, parks and greenway maintenance, and the first phase of Dorothea Dix Park’s redevelopment.

Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin and an incoming slate of development-friendly council members were quick to throw the weight of their campaign promises behind the referendum. Plans were quickly downsized, however, once the pandemic hit. Instead of the moonshot trifecta, voters were left with an $80 million housing bond—which they overwhelmingly approved—and an “I owe you” for parks. 

Now, Baldwin hopes to pick back up where she left off, resurrecting a parks bond likely to top $100 million.

“During COVID, I think parks and greenways became everybody’s oasis,” Baldwin told the INDY. “That’s where people go to escape—it’s where we go to walk, play, ride, socially distance with friends—and I think we’ll get support because people realize how important parks and greenways are to the community.”

It’s still a big ask, especially with no clear end to the pandemic in sight and a projected $28 million budget shortfall. The first phase of Dix Park, which includes the creation of the Gateway Plaza & Play area, costs $55 million alone. If the bond includes the second installment of the John Chavis Memorial Park project, which is estimated to cost $45 million, that’s already $100 million, without even taking into account other much-needed parks maintenance projects.

The current proposal falls about $20 million short of what the Dix Park Conservancy had planned for, said the non-profit’s president and CEO, Janet Cowell. In total, phase one is expected to cost $200 million, of which the conservancy will fund $50 million. That would leave the city on the hook for $150 million, which Cowell said could come from two bonds over five years. If Dix gets less than $75 million this year, Cowell says the City and the conservancy will both need to make up the shortfall.

“We’ll certainly push to get as close to that $75 million as possible,” Cowell said. “If that is not possible, then I think we should look at tax increment financing districts and figuring out other ways to complete the master plan that everybody agreed on.”

The city’s Parks, Recreation, and Greenway Advisory Board is dreaming even bigger: up to $200 million in bond funding, which doesn’t even include a proposed $50 million for the first wave of Dix Park. Separate from the bond, the board is also asking the city council to consider a one or two-cent property tax to help fund park maintenance. Representatives from the parks board could not be reached for comment before the INDY went to press.

Last week, council member Patrick Buffkin acknowledged that the council and advisory board were unlikely to see eye to eye on bond priorities.

“I want to suggest that everyone be comfortable with the possibility the council is going to disagree with the parks board,” Buffkin said at the January 19 council meeting. “It is a recommendation from an advisory board, it will carry a great bit of weight, but the council retains final prerogative to set the list and make decisions about how much in total.”

Council member David Cox, the often odd-vote-out District B representative, took issue with the lack of projects proposed for his district.

“Unless the number of proposed projects for District B has changed, I would not be in support of a parks bond going forward,” Cox said.

The council plans to take up the matter at its March retreat. The bond would appear as a referendum on the ballot for Raleigh’s October 5 municipal election, which will also include the council and mayoral races. The council must vote on a preliminary bond resolution by June and a final proposal by August for it to get on the ballot. 

While the council has the final say over what goes into the bond, ultimately, it’s up to voters to foot the bill. 

“The voters will decide, and it will be their choice,” Baldwin said. “We are going to make sure that we make a compelling case, that we’re fiscally responsible, and we’re fully informing them and transparent.”

Given low-interest rates, Cowell thinks the time to go big on a parks bond is now.

“I know there’s been a lot of hurt in the community, for small businesses and individuals, and as we look to recover from COVID, I think investing is a good thing,” Cowell said. “This is the time for government to step forward.”

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