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State Farmers Market might be headed to Lexington Co.

COLUMBIA -- A private-public partnership plans to build a new State Farmers Market on 160 acres in southern Lexington County.

The market on U.S. 321 near Interstate 26 would replace plans for a market at Shop and Pineview roads in Richland County that hit a snag when costs escalated and wholesale vendors pulled out this year.

The deal will be announced formally today.

Private investment in the project is expected to be about $32 million initially. The S.C. Department of Agriculture would put in about $12 million for relocation.

The market would add new features including stores, a restaurant and an amphitheater to attract customers and bring about 700 jobs to Lexington County.

Developers hope to open the Lexington County market site in March of 2010, if not earlier.

The market is looking to leave its current 55-year-old home on Bluff Road near Williams-Brice Stadium because it could not be expanded on the 50-acre site and needs to be modernized.

Six of the major wholesalers that operate at the market on Bluff Road, as well the State Agriculture Department, have committed to the new market.

"Here is a new opportunity that has come to us that represents leveraging the dollars we have with private dollars," S.C. Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers said Monday.

The plan came together over the last 90 days after wholesalers approached Columbia businessmen Jim Anderson of contractor Structioners Inc. and George Lee of Professional Realty Inc. about developing an alternate site.

Anderson and Lee formed 321 Lexington Associates to work on the project. They, along with Lexington County officials, took their plans to Weathers last month as an alternative to the faltering Richland County effort.

Greg Senn, an owner of Senn Brothers Produce and one of the major wholesale vendors, said he believes the new plan will work. Debt payments at the Richland County site would have been too expensive for wholesalers and vendors, Senn said.

"Richland County went all the way they could with what they had to work with," Senn said. "They worked really hard to make it work. But with what they were given to work with they couldn't make it economically feasible for us to build there, unless they gave it to us."

Anderson and Lee said they researched what makes a successful farmers market, looking at markets in Asheville, N.C., Raleigh, Nashville, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla.

Richland County and Lexington County went head to head in 2004 and 2005, vying to land the new State Farmers Market.

Richland County sweetened its deal by promising to help some vendors pay for new facilities at the market. The county also promised to spend $250,000 a year for the next two decades, promoting the new market.

The Richland County Council all but abandoned the project when the wholesalers pulled out because of high debt costs.

"It's a loss for Richland County to not be the site for the State Farmers Market," said Kit Smith, Richland County councilwoman and architect of plans for the new market in Richland County. "Still, I wish Lexington County well."

Smith said the Richland County site, 196 acres at Shop and Pineview roads, will revert back to Richland County.

County Council will decide soon what to do with the land that cost taxpayers $4 million.

Lee and Anderson will make land available to the wholesalers to build and operate their own facilities, as well as to the state Agriculture Department.

The Agriculture Department would own and operate the farmers' sheds at the market. The plan calls for three 80- by 200-foot drive-through open-air farmers' sheds with expansion to five.

The Agriculture Department also would look to move other operations to the market, Weathers said, including- a couple of the department's laboratories, a conference center, market service offices, and fruit, vegetable and poultry inspection operations.

The S.C. Agriculture Department likely will provide overall management for the market under an arrangement with the developers, although the market will be largely private.

"The department is playing more of a supportive role than a lead role," Weathers said.

The General Assembly will need to approve the shift. "Funds will need to be moved from one site to the other," said Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, whose district includes the new market site.

The project has been proposed as a multi-county industrial park and will be eligible for about $1.8 million in tax credits, said Al Burns, Lexington County economic development director.

The property, with the exception of the lots sold to the state, will remain on the Lexington County property tax rolls.

Staff Writer Gina Smith contributed to this report.

AP-NY-11-05-07 2213EST

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