Richland County Council to consider sweetening the deal for vendors at new state farmers market

COLUMBIA -- From the dirt lane taking off through the woods along Pineview Road, the unmarked, 196-acre tract Richland County bought for a new State Farmers Market looks ready for construction.

But behind the scenes, sources say, tough negotiations are under way over the cost of building on the partly soggy site.

Tonight, the Richland County Council is expected to consider a subsidy for the six wholesale vendors who agreed to relocate from the 50-year-old farmers market in the shadow of USC's football stadium.

County officials won't say what those vendors are being charged for customized, refrigerated storage buildings at the new market.

But the council is considering whether to sweeten the deal with vendors by $3 million, according to sources, using a county advertising budget to lower the price to address their concerns.

While the talks are private, one vendor, Gregg Senn, said construction expenses plus difficulties with the site translate into costs too rich for his blood.

The worst-case scenario? A stalemate with the vendors, jeopardizing an $80 million project that has been in the works for five years.

The negotiations are the latest hitch in a project that faced a shortfall in state money this spring and subsequent delays in construction. The market is now projected to open in late 2008.

A majority of the council members weren't even on council when the project was conceived.

Now, some are saying the county has been overly generous, devoting $20 million toward land, construction and marketing in a collaboration with the state Department of Agriculture. They say they're unwilling to put more money into the deal.

"One of the things that I have concerns with is, we don't give a sweetheart deal where it ends up costing taxpayers or the county money," Councilman Damon Jeter said last week.

Councilman Mike Montgomery said the negotiations are allowing the council to scrutinize the economics of a project with which most of them were not involved.

"If those negotiations are unsuccessful, we've got a big problem. The issue is, are we willing to do more? I can only tell you, from me, that I am not."

The state-led project is designed to capitalize on the country's obsession with good food, attracting out-of-towners to Richland County. The new market, three times larger than the current market, will be just beyond I-77, between Garners Ferry Road and Bluff Road. It's being billed as having an international street fair atmosphere.

As part of its commitment with the state, the council agreed in 2005 to funnel $250,000 a year in tourist taxes to advertise the market. The hospitality taxes are collected at bars and restaurants in unincorporated Richland County.

Details between the county and the state were nailed down before six of the 11 council members were in office. Likewise, agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers inherited the project from a previous agency head.

Now, the council is trying to make the best of a project that is behind schedule by several months and costing $15 million to $20 million more than expected.

"The financing, vendor agreements, construction timetables -- all those issues are facing us at the exact same time," council chairman Joe McEachern said last week.

McEachern and Councilman Greg Pearce were on the council during negotiations that included a competing proposal for the market by Lexington County.

"We have invested an awful lot into the farmers market," Pearce said, "and we want that very much to succeed."

The county is taking out a $10 million, low-interest loan, which the vendors will repay, to build their high-tech storage facilities. Using a county loan also means the vendors won't have to pay property taxes.

After 20 years, each vendor will own his building and the land under it, with sites ranging from four to 10 acres.

Pearce is worried about what would happen if one or more of the vendors opted out.

"What happens to the investment we've already made?" he asked rhetorically. "We bought the land and gave it to the state. So we're in it."

Jeter said he's worried the project won't be as impressive as it was portrayed.

"We approached this as a destination. If it's not a full-blown market, it could put a damper on the original intent."

Council members have asked for a legal opinion on their options and obligations under a contract signed with the state agriculture department two years ago.