RICHLAND COUNTY Council should resist any urge to fund a regional market that might rival the State Farmers Market being built in Lexington County.
That battle has been fought, and in a strange turn of events, Lexington won, although it remains to be seen if the new market going up along U.S. 321 will be the success the state and its private partners think it will be - and that the taxpayers helping foot the bill need it to be.
Richland County initially won the right to play host to a new state market that would have replaced the current Bluff Road facility when it pledged millions of dollars to support the effort. But the county ended up with egg on its face when the state backed out of the deal, which never should have been struck, considering neither the state nor the county could afford it. By then, of course, Richland had purchased a $4.55 million site on Pineview Road and deeded much of it to the state.
The state refused to return the land, saying the county first had to reimburse it for money spent "improving" the site. A legal fight that ensued has since been resolved. But now that the land might not be used for a market, the county is scrambling to find a way to pay for it. The county has been repaying the loan for the land using proceeds from a 2 percent restaurant tax, which must be used for tourism-related projects.
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That outstanding expense alone should be reason enough for Richland to rule out any effort to build a county-funded farmers market. But there are other reasons as well. First of all, it would be an act of bad faith to finance a duplicative market that could undercut the taxpayer-supported facility that will replace the State Farmers Market. As much as some people act as if the river divides two distinct communities, Lexington and Richland counties make up one economic community. It doesn't matter which side of the river the market is on; it would be foolish to do anything that would hinder the success of the market, expected to open in April.
We understand the dozens of small and mid-size vendors, who won't have a home once the Bluff Road market closes, wanting to find another home. Some vendors and others are lobbying Richland County Council to purchase a $6.9 million site on Atlas Road and establish a produce market.
The idea is for the county to use rent from the venders to repay a 20-year loan. Frankly, if there is a market - pun intended - for such a facility, it should be financed and owned by private investors
Although it was an ill-timed arrangement, the idea of Richland County partnering with the state to relocate a taxpayer-owned farmers market was very different from what's now being proposed. The county shouldn't create a new subsidized market. If Richland creates a market using the full faith and credit of the county, it will ultimately be responsible for not only repaying the loan, but ensuring the project's long-term success.
It's understandable if council members feel some obligation to help preserve jobs represented by these vendors. Perhaps the could provide some minimal, one-time aid for infrastructure or other improvement if a private group takes on the project. Anything beyond that is unacceptable. A multimillion-dollar produce market simply is not a priority or necessity in Richland County.