Richland farmers market could muddy waters

If Richland County builds a produce market, it will be viewed as an effort to undermine the success of a new state farmers market in Lexington County, state Sen. Jake Knotts said Monday.

"I don't think we need to be battling over the farmers market anymore and creating hard feelings," Knotts said.

"If they pursue that, then they obviously are looking for a fight."

Still, Richland County Council is scheduled to decide tonight whether to negotiate for a $6.9-million site on Atlas Road last owned by Boozer Lumber.

Some members have been inundated with calls from constituents, asking that a local market be built in anticipation of the S.C. State Farmers Market's move from Bluff Road this spring.

But the 11-member council seems unsettled about whether that's a good idea.

For one thing, it has the potential to alienate neighbors in Cayce and Lexington County.

The proposal also came up before the county has had a chance to figure out how to pay for a separate piece of land it purchased several years ago for a state market on Pineview Road. The site was rejected once the project was well under way.

The county is repaying a $4.55 million loan for that land, using tourist-tax revenues.

Once it's settled that the land won't be used as a tourist destination of some sort, the county won't be able to tap those tourist taxes - meaning it either has to approach legislators about changing the law, or find a new source to repay the loan.

The idea of a local market has been floating around for months, but recently gained legitimacy when Councilman Kelvin Washington took up the cause.

Washington envisions a small regional market that he said wouldn't compete with the state market in Lexington County. "We're not trying to take anything away from them."

But Washington said small- and mid-sized vendors are unwilling to move there because of high rents. Providing a small market where they could stay in Richland County would protect their jobs, he said.

"It doesn't make sense for us to leave them out in the cold like this," he said.

But Knotts said, "If they try to undermine our farmers market in Lexington County, as long as one senator can stop the show, you're looking at him."

Washington said he knows some of his colleagues are gun shy.

That's because Richland County was expecting to build the state farmers market until two years ago, when vendors refused to sign contracts.

That left Richland County with land it didn't need, a lawsuit over improvements to the land - and a pair of developers who quickly stepped in, promising to build the market along U.S. 321 in Lexington County.

Council members seem sympathetic to the plight of the vendors or nostalgic about losing a Richland County market but, except for Washington, not fired up about taking on a multimillion-dollar project.

Some say they'd prefer for the private sector to take over, noting that successful Saturday markets have sprouted across the county.

Chairman Paul Livingston said a produce market is just not a priority now.

Added Councilwoman Val Hutchinson: "I thought we voted against it once already. I don't know why it's still there."

On another front, a competing Realtor, Ben Brantley, said he was delivering a proposal Monday for an alternate market site along Shop Road.

That has the potential to raise questions of fairness.

The council never has voted on whether it wants to pursue a local market. Instead, it started the debate with a proposal to buy a specific piece of land.

As Livingston said, "Right now, it's just driven by the folks who want to sell the property."

Councilman Norman Jackson said he has been getting 20 to 25 calls a day from people who are misinformed. "They've been calling me, (saying), 'Don't let the local farmers market go to Lexington County.' It is going to Lexington County."

Meanwhile, the new market in Lexington is scheduled to open on April 17.

The current market, near the University of South Carolina football stadium, has been sold to USC for parking. The university will take control of the property in the spring.