State Farmers Market plan calls for more local markets

COLUMBIA -- More than $43 million set aside to replace the State Farmers Market in Columbia would be divided between Lexington County and a new network of mini-markets across South Carolina, if legislative leaders get their way.

State taxpayers would cut their investment in half -- to $22.5 million -- for a new state market near Cayce, under a measure that has won Senate approval.

The proposal would use the remaining money, as much as $20.7 million, to create a network of small, local markets, paid for in part by the state. The markets would cater to truck farmers and sellers of prepared foods, Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers said last week.

"We see this desire to buy locally as a profit opportunity for farmers in South Carolina," Weathers said, citing his agency's push to promote state-grown produce.

The proposal also would allow Weathers to proceed with a public-private partnership to move the 55-year-old market from Bluff Road and build a new state Agriculture Department headquarters at a 174-acre market along U.S. 321 in Lexington County.

For years, state and local officials have been looking to move the aging market. But that proposal remains hotly debated among vendors and political leaders.

Key legislators and Weathers came up with the new approach in recent months as a $63 million plan for a new market in Richland County imploded.

Leaders in the General Assembly said, since they already had committed $43.2 million for a new market, the money should be spent on farming issues.

But the proposal comes during a tight budget year as legislators are struggling to find about $200 million to pay for other services.

The House budget-writing committee will take up the Senate proposal in mid-March after the House votes on the state budget.

The number and location of the mini-markets still is to be determined.

The Senate proposal -- a joint resolution, not a bill -- calls for Clemson University to recommend locations to Weathers. The commissioner would select the sites.