S.C. taxpayers are poised to pay the chairman of the State Ports Authority nearly $12 million to buy 15 acres that he owns at the new State Farmers Market in Lexington County.
The state Senate approved spending the money last week as part of its proposed state $6.7 billion general fund budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
But some lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House are balking at the expense, questioning whether property owner Bill Stern, a prolific campaign contributor to Republicans and Democrats alike, is making a profit at the expense of taxpayers.
I dont believe Mr. Stern needs to make a profit, said House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-Calhoun. If he does make a profit, it needs to be a reasonable profit on a short-term investment.
Stern, a Columbia developer, originally owned a portion of the 15-acre site. But, in April, he became the sole owner. Stern declined to say how he came to be the full owner of the land, saying it was personal.
He added he does not expect to make a profit on the deal.
Its a break-even for me. Absolutely zero profit, he said. When I made the deal with the (state Agriculture) commissioner (Hugh Weathers), it was at or below appraised value. Im willing to bet it is going to be below appraised value.
The new Farmers Market opened in 2010. When completed, the market is expected to cost $85 million. Last year, officials said $24 million in public money and $35 million from private investors had been spent on the facility.
The purpose of the market is to provide the states agriculture community either farmers or wholesalers a place to sell their produce.
The property the state wants to buy includes the markets front gate, where vendors pay fees to enter the market to sell their goods. It also includes four acres of retail space including one building and 11 acres of space available for rent to smaller vendors.
Agriculture Commissioner Weathers said it is important for the state to own Sterns property because:
• The front gate needs to be a welcome center promoting the entire market
• The retail property needs a second building
• The state needs to be the landlord for smaller vendors to give them a better shot at competing with the large vendors that own their own property at the market.
The Senate approved $16.3 million for the project. Weathers said he would use two-thirds of that money to buy the property from Stern.
Even after the purchase from Stern, the State Farmers Market will have more privately owned land than publicly owned land, Weathers said. He added if the state doesnt buy the land, an out-of-state buyer could purchase it, gaining control of vital portions of the Farmers Market.
I am convinced that it is a more efficient setup for the state to own some of those components, Weathers said. We think (a) smaller (vendor) who has not invested will benefit more with the state having a more integral role in that component of the market.
Stern was appointed to the Ports Authority in 2002 by then-Gov. Jim Hodges, having served on it previously when Carroll Campbell was governor. He was reappointed by then-Gov. Mark Sanford and elected authority chairman in 2006.
Stern is a frequent donor to political campaigns of both Republicans and Democrats. His contributions include a $3,500 donation to Weathers 2010 campaign for agriculture commissioner.
Hes the local version of Howard Rich. He gets what he wants, state Rep. Boyd Brown, D-Fairfield, said during a Democratic caucus meeting this week, referring to the wealthy New York donor who has donated money to dozens of S.C. candidates.
I find that laughable, Stern said of Browns comments. If the state doesnt think this is advantageous to move forward with it, you know, they shouldnt move forward with it.
Weathers said the land purchase was not politically motivated.
My job is to bring proposals to the General Assembly where I think the economy of South Carolina can benefit under agriculture, Weathers said. I see it in those terms. That the expansion of ownership on the market helps us meet some of those things moving forward.
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, defended Weathers and Stern during a House Democratic caucus meeting this week. She has invited Weathers to attend next weeks caucus to speak to any concerns from Democrats.
It does look bad. But that doesnt mean it is bad, Cobb-Hunter said. Based on what I know right now, I support the purchase. ... If a different set of facts present themselves, Im not opposed to saying I was wrong.
State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the Agriculture Commissions budget, said he had a lot of questions about the proposal and was not ready to support it.
Our job is to be good stewards of the taxpayer money, he said. If you wouldnt invest in this as an individual, would you expect the taxpayers of the state to invest in it? Thats kind of a litmus test for me.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.