Three more major tenants have closed on land and are ready to begin construction at the South Carolina State Farmers Market in Lexington County.
That brings to six the number of large wholesalers transferring their operations from the cramped Columbia State Farmers Market on Bluff Road to new buildings on the Charleston Highway site south of Cayce.
It's an important milestone for the new market, which has seen its share of controversy. But it came as no surprise to the market's private developer.
"They've been with us all the way," George Lee, a partner with 321 Lexington Associates, said of wholesalers L&N Produce, Ayer & Price Fruit Co. and Raybon Tomato. "But you never know until everything is signed."
Lee noted that eight mid-size vendors also have agreed to lease space in a warehouse the firm is building, bringing its occupancy to about 70 percent.
The three major vendors join V.B. Hook & Co., Severt & Sons Produce Co., and Senn Brothers at the sprawling 175-acre site.
Efforts to reach the vendors were unsuccessful.
But S.C. Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers said the big vendors represent 70 percent of the total volume of the new market and often buy and sell from smaller vendors.
"They are the lifeblood of the economic impact of the new market," he said. "It's unique to have large wholesalers next to farmers and smaller vendors. It's a symbiotic relationship."
Lee said the project is "relatively" on schedule for an April 17 opening - six weeks after vendors will be forced to leave the aging Bluff Road market Feb. 28.
The property, across the street from Williams-Brice Stadium, will be turned over to the University of South Carolina.
For decades, USC has coveted the current farmers market property for parking. The university and the state agreed last year that USC could buy the property for $16 million.
The school wants the vendors out in February so it can complete improvements for the fall 2010 football season.
As the agreement between the school and the state was being negotiated, Richland County was attempting to forge a deal to keep the market east of the Congaree River.
But the effort to place the farmers market at Pineview Road at the end of Shop Road fell through because it didn't have the support of the large wholesale vendors.
And it is still uncertain whether smaller vendors will make the move.
Bill and Rebekah Cline own Rebekah's Garden, the largest flower vendor at the market. Instead of moving to the new farmers market, the couple bought land on Leesburg Road and built $40,000 worth of greenhouses.
"I wish them all well, but our customer base is over here" in Richland County, Rebekah Cline said Thursday.
She said many of the smaller vendors were confused and disturbed by all the controversy surrounding the tiff between Richland and Lexington counties.
"The uncertainty has been very difficult for a business owner," Cline said.
The new market will be much different from the old one.
Located between U.S. 321 and I-26 near Dixiana, the $85 million market will be 2 1/2 times as large as the old market. By comparison, it's the size of seven Walmart Supercenters combined.
In addition to the usual wholesale facilities, farmers' sheds and retail and greenhouse areas, the market will boast:
- A 400-seat amphitheater
- A 200-seat conference center
- A demonstration kitchen
- A large event sign and RV park to draw people off the interstate
- And a fishmonger, meat market and restaurant
The developers are also building a series of storefronts and stalls called The Porches and The Stables that rent for about the same price as stalls at the old farmers market. They would house the smallest of the vendors.
It's kind of an IKEA for collard greens, highlighting South Carolina's $34 billion agribusiness industry. Some billboards that have been erected feature cartoons by Robert Ariail, former cartoonist for The State.
The plan is to draw travelers from I-77 and I-26.
Also included in the project are a new $2 million state agriculture laboratory and conference center.
The state also is building $5.5 million in farmers' stalls, a produce shed and additional offices to feature S.C. products and promote the department's "Certified South Carolina Grown" campaign.
"The sheer size is impressive, and I'm really excited about what we have to offer," Weathers said.