State Fairgrounds to get makeover; USC students anticipate Saturday's face-off between smoldering rivals

As contract expiration nears, USC plans to buy farmers market, beautify stadium area

The (Columbia) StateNovember 25, 2008 

The State Fairgrounds parking lot, one of the main tailgating areas for USC football games, is undergoing a $4.5 million beautification project that will include paved roads, drainage, curbing and 250 adult trees.

The work comes a year and a half before a 40-year contract expires between USC and the independent, nonprofit society that runs the fair.

Under the contract, the State Agricultural and Mechanical Society of South Carolina, established by the Legislature in 1869, receives $8,500 per game for 5,600 spaces.

Today, the university charges Gamecock Club members fans who make donations to the university for better seats $225 to $260 per season for a space.

That means, on the low end, USC could make about $1.2 million before any fees are paid in a season with seven home games.

Jim Petrus, parking director for the USC athletics department, said the university took in about $876,000 this year because not all of the spaces were purchased.

The contract between the society and the university "seemed like a good deal in the 1970s," fair general manager Gary Goodman said. But he added the contract obviously needs to be updated.

"We're going to work with the university," he said. "It's a natural fit."

But Goodman said the society wanted to go ahead with the improvements to show off the new lot if a contract with the university doesn't happen and it decides to lease the parking spaces to the public.

The society estimates it could make at least $1 million per year if it leased the spaces directly to fans, Goodman said.

Petrus said he and Goodman have met formally twice in the past two years, and they talk frequently.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the athletic department and the university want to renew a long-term contract," he said.

However, Petrus noted the contract won't expire until June 2010 and some factors are still uncertain, such as how many spaces the beautification project will eliminate.

Also in the mix -- USC is expected to acquire in 2010 the 54-acre State Farmers Market property across Bluff Road from Williams-Brice Stadium. The school will pay the state $15 million for the property.

How many spaces the university will have at the farmers market could figure into the negotiations with the fair society, Petrus said.

Private spaces in parking lots around the stadium sell for up to $25,000 each. Some are equipped with big-screen TVs, covered bays and grilling areas.

The university hasn't decided what kind of amenities the farmers market will have, Petrus said, and that could affect the overall parking scenario around the stadium.

Once the farmers market is open for parking, the 600 spaces in the footprint of the stadium could be eliminated and the area beautified for aesthetics and pedestrian safety.

USC athletics director Eric Hyman said the university would like to control both the farmers market property and the fairgrounds.

"It's advantageous to have both of them," he said. "And the beautification of the fairgrounds parking is going to enhance Williams-Brice Stadium."

But all the improvements come with a cost that will likely be shouldered by Gamecocks fans.

Tim Connor, a 55-year-old computer systems programmer for the state, donates about $1,500 to the university and has good seats in the club level of the 80,250-seat stadium.

His parking space on the fairgrounds used to be free. But two years ago, the school started charging him for it.

Next year, he will be asked to pay up to $395 per season on top of tickets, donations and parking to raise money for a stadium expansion.

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