'A special place': Former State Treasurer Janet Cowell takes reins of Raleigh's Dix Park Conservancy

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Monday is the first official day on the job for Janet Cowell as the new president and CEO of the Dix Park Conservancy, the nonprofit supporting the City of Raleigh's development of the 308-acre destination park located in the heart of the capital city.

The former state treasurer, state senator, and Raleigh city councilor said she remembers some of the earliest conversations about the future of the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus in the early 2000s. She's served on the Conservancy's board since 2017, but was recently picked from a nationwide pool of candidates to replace Sean Malone as its leader.

"I got on the board because I really saw it as one of the most creative, hopeful, fun projects in the country that's going on," Cowell told in ABC11 on Monday. "It's just such a hopeful, healing place, so I want everyone to be able to know what I've grown to know, which is just that this park is such a special, special place. And I think it's going to be transformative for the city and state as it develops."

Cowell, like many of us, is working from home these days as she navigates taking the reins in the midst of a pandemic she described as a hurdle.

"The park has been there," she said. "It is the public gathering space. It's where you can socially distance -- it's where you can celebrate," she said.

Cowell plans to continue fundraising private dollars, advocating for Dix Park to be included in a parks bond this fall, and continue small group programming that will draw people to the park for safe, socially distanced outdoor gatherings.

"The park is out there and we want you to come visit," Cowell said.

As Cowell takes over leadership, the Conversancy is funding Phase Now in the park's master plan, which includes the 12.5 acre Plaza and Playground area off of Lake Wheeler Road.

Cowell said she expects the playground project to take about three and half years to complete, the renovated All Faiths Chapel should open by March, but the timeline for the entire Dix Park Master Plan to come to fruition, she said, will depend on the conservancy's partner in this public-private partnership: the City of Raleigh.

"I'm putting a bit of my old treasurer's hat on and I would just say we're all thinking about recovering from COVID," she said. "A lot of small businesses have been hit, a lot of people have lost their jobs, and to me, this is the time to invest."

Cowell also said starting in her new role on Martin Luther King Jr. Day instills for her a hope in how the park can continue to be used to move the city forward for future generations.

"It's actually nice to start on MLK Day because as you know, there's a long history with this site. It was a plantation at one point and I think honoring the legacy and the contributions of all the people at Dix, including the former enslaved, and how far we've come," she said. "It's amazing the amount of history there and how meaningful and just how much this site and the people who have been there have contributed to the city of Raleigh. This park will continue to be part of a very bright future for our town."
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