COLUMBIA, SC — When the State Farmers Market moved to Lexington County from Bluff Road in Columbia in 2010, the fear was that customers wouldn’t travel that far from downtown to buy fresh, local food.
In large part, that has proved to be true, as the new market has struggled to attract small farmers and customers, being viewed by many as a location mostly for wholesalers. But there has been a silver lining to that cloud.
Downtown Columbia now has two year-round, weekly farmers’ markets focusing on locally produced food – the Soda City market on Main Street, and the new Vista Marketplace at 701 Whaley in Olympia. And the town of Lexington also has boasted a year-round market since the state market’s move.
Seasonal farmers markets have also sprung up around the metro area from USC to Rosewood, Forest Acres to Lexington, Sandhill to Lake Carolina.
“When we lost the big in-town market, that created a little bit of a void,” said Richard Burts, owner of the 701 Whaley arts and event center, which has hosted a local market since the state market’s departure. “But it created an opportunity for Columbia to have a lot of small markets, which is good.”
Markets through the years
Downtown Columbia’s first market dates to the 1800s, when a small, public market opened on the ground level of the original City Hall, according to a history of the state market on the S.C. Agriculture Department’s website. It later moved to Assembly Street where it thrived until the early 1950s, when it moved to Bluff Road near USC’s football stadium. It was, by then, known as the State Farmers Market.
But the University of South Carolina long coveted the Farmers Market property to use as parking for game days. So in 2005, Richland County and the S.C. Department of Agriculture agreed to relocate the market from Bluff Road to a 146-acre site in Richland County. USC paid the state $16 million for the old market.
The county bought 196 acres along Pineview Road for $4.55 million and deeded all but 50 acres to the state for the new market. The state said it spent $2.5 million clearing and improving the property.
The plan to put a market there failed, however, because it wasn’t supported by the large, wholesale vendors, who said monthly payments to buy buildings there would be too high.
So the state chose a plan by private developers to build a 175-acre market in Lexington County, leaving many of the small vendors angry and feeling abandoned. They resisted the move across the river and many have not made the transition.
The new $85 million facility, located between U.S. 321 and I-26 near Dixiana, is more than twice the size as the old market. In addition to the usual wholesale facilities, farmers’ sheds and retail area, the market’s developer said the facility would boast a 400-seat amphitheater, a 200-seat conference center, a demonstration kitchen and a RV park, much of which has yet to be built.
‘An extension of the city’
Prior to the state market’s move, Emile DeFelice, owner of Caw Caw Creek Pastured Pork farm in St. Matthews and an advocate of sustainable agriculture, ran for S.C. Agriculture Commissioner against Hugh Weathers, an agri-businessman from Bowman. DeFelice railed against the new market, which Weathers backed.
DeFelice lost the race for agriculture commissioner, but had already started the city’s All-Local Farmers’ Market, which first hopped between parking lots in the Rosewood area of downtown Columbia. It grew and thrived, and later moved to 701 Whaley — the old Olympia mill village community center renovated by Burts — and became a Saturday morning institution. People would stroll through to buy local eggs, artisan breads and meats, organic vegetables and even purchase fresh made breakfasts and a glass of champagne.
Last year, DeFelice moved from 701 Whaley to Main Street, in a joint effort with the city of Columbia and the City Center Partnership to both expand the market and draw people downtown.
“We want to make this market an extension of the city itself,” DeFelice said during a recent Saturday morning market.
About 50 vendors lined the 1500 block of Main Street in front of the Columbia Museum of Art. Skaters drawn to the ice rink in the museum’s Boyd Plaza swelled the number of shoppers.
“We are trying to build traffic on Main Street,” said City Center’s Heather Spires, whose job is to attract retail downtown. “This is a jump start.”
‘This is a business’
But all is not sweetness and light in the world of local farmers’ markets.
When DeFelice left for Main, he didn’t invite some of his old vendors along. It was a choice, he said, to build a balanced market that ensures that its vendors are able to make a profit. He has also moved away from the realm of all local and has been hired as a consultant by the State Farmers Market in Lexington County that he once railed against.
“This is a business,” he said, noting that too many vendors selling the same thing at one market results in none of the vendors making enough money to survive.
Coffee roaster Nick Hauser sold his brew at All-Local at 701 Whaley and has transitioned to Soda City. He said his sales are up 20 percent since the move.
“The demographics are right here,” he said, referring to the young professionals who choose to live on Main Street, joined by the curious who come in from other neighborhoods and the suburbs. And the 34-year-old said he enjoys being a part of the growth of Main Street.
“For years, Main Street was a ghost town on Saturdays,” he said. “Now there’s life.”
But the split has left a bad taste in the mouths of some vendors from the old All-Local Market, who believe a city-backed market like Soda City should be open to everyone.
“It’s un-American,” said Linda Hewlette, a self-proclaimed old hippie who ran the City Café in Bank of America Plaza on Main Street for 17 years. “The people should determine what they want to buy.”
‘We share the same goals’
So Hewlette and others have reopened the market at 701 Whaley, which is in a small covered space rather than on an open street like Soda City.
Liz McCullar manages the new Vista Marketplace. She said one of the main reasons some vendors like 701 Whaley rather than Main Street is they don’t have to set up a tent.
Long time customer Frank Adams said he prefers the Vista market because of the camaraderie.
“But we visit the Main Street market,” he said. “We all share the same goals: Good food, real food and good health.”
Burts, too, said there are no hard feelings about DeFelice leaving 701 Whaley.
“We really miss the market moving from 701 to Main Street, but Emile has always made it clear he wanted a larger presence,” Burts said. “We were happy for him to move to Main Street and wholeheartedly support it.”
Burts added that having two downtown markets – one in Olympia and one on Main Street, not to mention the other markets that have sprung up around the region — is a plus for the city.
“It creates more energy on Saturday mornings, especially when you have markets going on at the same time,” he said. “Anything we can do as a city getting people out of their homes and creating commerce is good for everybody. It doesn’t have to be limited to one place in town; we should have things going on everywhere.”