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Richland County Farmers Market: Growing interest

Proponents of Richland County farmers market propose old Boozer Lumber site

Real estate investors are offering Richland County an alternative for what they say are dozens of produce vendors unwilling to move to the new S.C. Farmers Market near Cayce.

The $6.9 million proposal has been floating around for months but recently gained legitimacy with an endorsement by Councilman Kelvin Washington.

Some other Richland County Council members, however, say they're unwilling to buy the former Boozer Lumber site at 1400 Atlas Road. They say the county doesn't have the money and the timing is rotten.

At the center of the struggle are hundreds of local jobs, not to mention the tradition of a downtown farmers market.

"You've got vendors who've been working over there for 50-some years, and they're looking at closing up shop," Washington said. "They're part of the economic engine, and we can't ignore that part."

The project hits the table just months before the current S.C. State Farmers Market along Bluff Road closes, to be supplanted by a brand-new market in Lexington County.

"This is ideal, like somebody dropped it down from heaven," said Tom Elliott, who's been lobbying for the Atlas Road project on behalf of small- and mid-sized vendors.

The unnamed investors, represented by Grubb & Ellis | Wilson Kibler, would like some "movement" on the issue this month, real estate broker George McCutchen said.

Basically, vendors would repay the county's 20-year loan with their rent. In fact, McCutchen estimates the deal could make the county a little money, maybe $100,000 a year.

"We know it's a good idea. Everybody on council has said it's a good idea," he said. "They have said they don't know if they can afford it, and we've demonstrated they can afford it."

Another option would be for the property owners to rent to the vendors directly.

But McCutchen said that's less appealing to the vendors, who want a day-to-day manager as well as the legitimacy that would go along with having Richland County involved in the produce market.

As it stands, state government and private investors, led by George Lee, are building a $60-million market on 160 acres along U.S. 321 in Lexington County.

They plan to open April 17 - just in time for the state Department of Agriculture's popular plant and flower festival, said both Lee and Hugh Weathers, state agriculture commissioner.

The highlights of the Atlas Road proposal:

- The property is 37.8 acres, more than a quarter of it raw land.

- It has 358,722 square-feet of building space that advocates say would be ideal for produce dealers.

- The only addition would be adding loading docks and coolers.

It's unclear how many vendors might be interested in an alternate location, though McCutchen estimated 35.

But tomato, peach and flower vendor Mike Baker said it's closer to 100 vendors who remain in limbo just seven months before the new farmers market is set to open in Lexington County.

"We would all really rather be in Richland County," Baker said.

"This place is already built and we don't know what's going to happen across the river."

Council members say they'd like to maintain a produce market in Richland County; in fact, they intended to build the market that's now under way in Lexington County.

But council chairman Paul Livingston said the project doesn't have the momentum to move forward, and Councilwoman Kit Smith agreed.

"The private sector might be able to take care of it," she added.

Administrator Milton Pope, meanwhile, has said he'll analyze any proposals that come forward - and there's at least one more, according to Councilman Greg Pearce.

The current market, on Bluff Road, near the University of South Carolina football stadium, has been sold to USC for parking.

Weathers said USC will take control of the property in "mid-spring."