A Raleigh family helps create a space expected to draw 1 million annual visitors.
Tom and Pat Gipson are folks you want to sit with and swap stories about why North Carolina is a great place to raise a family and build a business. Soft-spoken and unassuming, the Gipsons recently wrote a $10 million check for a playground.
Not just any playground, however. The Gipson Play Plaza at Raleigh’s Dix Park promises to be among the most enchanting public playgrounds in the Southeast, potentially attracting more than 1 million visitors annually after its expected opening in mid-2024. The 18.5 acres is among the first steps in the dramatic reinvention of 308 acres near downtown Raleigh that for more than 150 years was home to Dorothea Dix Hospital, the state’s first mental health facility. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has its main offices in the historic buildings, but it’s expected to move to a new facility on Blue Ridge Road when its lease expires in 2025. Raleigh bought the land from the state for $52 million in 2015.
The play plaza will serve as the gateway into an expansive park to be developed over the next decade. It will feature a waterfall wall, climbing towers, a bevy of swings facing the city skyline, slides and playground accessories. Its signature plaza will host festivals and performances and be set amid lush gardens and green spaces.
And it will be free, thanks to a $67 million public-private investment that entails $20 million from the Dix Park Conservancy, including the Gipsons’ donation, and $12 million from the city of Raleigh. The remaining $35 million is expected to be funded through the Raleigh parks bond that’s on the ballot on Nov. 8. Dix Park is slated to receive 15% of the $275 million bond, which will fund 20 projects in parks across the city.
“What could we possibly do for the city of Raleigh that would be more meaningful than this? This is the most incredibly designed piece of land in the state and to support it is an incredible opportunity,” Tom Gipson says.
The gift was made possible by a successful homebuilding business founded in 1976. Gipson made his mark by offering an alternative to the traditional two-story Williamsburg-design homes dotting much of Raleigh.
“One of the things I learned at Wharton [he earned an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania’s business school] was to bring something unique to market. So I built my business doing homes that were more contemporary and that had basements when nobody else was doing basements,” he says. While other builders only wanted flat lots, the Monticello, New York, native often paid lower prices for slopes that would enable walkout basements.
“All of our wealth is from our success in Raleigh. I did well in the building business, even better investing my profits, and earned all of my money here,” he says. The North Raleigh couple’s five children each graduated from Millbrook High School and have cumulatively earned 11 college degrees.
“This city provided an environment for us to raise our children in a way that has helped them become the successful people they are. That makes you want to give back to the city.”
His homes were initially priced at the higher end of the market, which was about $100,000 in the late ’70s and ’80s. When the housing economy plummeted in 2008, he was still building finer homes, but at much higher prices.
At the height of the recession, “I was spending $1.2 million building spec homes that would maybe sell for a million,” he says. That math didn’t work, but Gipson had made enough money that he could close his business and focus on investing and giving back. “It was a blessing to me that the economy made my business not make
a lot of sense.”
Thomas Gipson Homes built about 1,000 homes, primarily in Raleigh and Cary in Wake County, with a few others around the Triangle and at Lake Gaston.
But it’s the 3,000-plus Habitat for Humanity homes around the country that earned Gipson national recognition as a visionary and a community-minded leader.
In 2002, he started the Home Builders Blitz program at Wake County’s Habitat chapter. He persuaded 11 other builders to join his company in constructing a dozen homes in five days. The group assembled 24 homes in Raleigh the next year.
Influenced by his wife, Gipson helped expand the project to Habitat affiliates around the nation. Weeklong blitzes remain a part of the nonprofit’s work, though the pandemic paused the project.
The couple have long been involved in the Dix Park Conservancy, a nonprofit established to work alongside the city to develop a unique venue. Their previous donations total $1.2 million.
“It’s the proximity to downtown that makes this an unparalleled opportunity,” says Janet Cowell, the former state treasurer who is the nonprofit’s CEO. “No other place has this much acreage within half a mile of the state Capitol; it’s like a 19th-century park that is just sitting there preserved.”
She cites comparable parks as the Presidio in San Francisco, Governor’s Island in New York City and the Gathering Place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which had more than 1 million visitors in its first year after opening in 2018. The Gipson playground is designed by the same New York-based firm that worked in Tulsa, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. London’s Balfour Beatty and Raleigh-based Holt Brothers Construction are the contractors.
“It was 106 degrees when we visited [Tulsa] and they had 6,000 people in the park that day, which tells you how well-designed these spaces are,” Cowell says. “The amount of thought that goes into the planning — it’s everything from the sun shades over a slide to the plantings that make it feel like you’re in a garden.”
Cowell estimates more than 350,000 people already visit Dix Park each year, many for festivals or to visit a 4-acre sunflower field. The broader park is aimed at encouraging community interaction as well as providing passive spaces. A few historically significant buildings will be redeveloped as museums, meeting places, restaurants and other uses, but the focus is on expanding green spaces and natural areas. Financial details haven’t been disclosed, but many tens of millions of dollars is likely to be invested, including restoring a chemical-laden creek and other environmental remediation.
“People don’t understand the significance of these kinds of parks, what they do for communities, because they haven’t been exposed to this sort of transformational impact of parks in their community,” Cowell says.
The play plaza promises to be more like Disney than a typical neighborhood playground, Tom Gipson says. “People from Charlotte won’t drive for their children to play in the sand, but people from Charlotte are going to be coming here to see this — I guarantee that.”
The real experts get it: When asked what they want from a playground, a focus group of 5-year-olds told N.C. State University’s Natural Learning Initiative, which is helping with its design: “We want to go to a playground where we can make friends.”
Tom and Pat Gipson are excited to help make it happen.
“We work hard, we make money, and, after we’re gone, what is left? Beyond your family and kids, it’s nice to have made a difference,” Tom Gipson says. “This park is a monumental undertaking. It will require a lot of financial help. But it offers a golden opportunity for successful business people to make a difference.” ■