By Paul Gable
Expansion of public ownership in the State Farmers Market in Lexington was avoided this year when House members of the budget conference committee would not agree to the $13 million the Senate wanted to appropriate.
S.C. Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers asked the General Assembly to appropriate nearly $17 million in this year’s budget to purchase the property. It is owned by Columbia developer Bill Stern who also serves as the chairman of the State Ports Authority.
According to Weathers, the $17 million amount was based on an appraisal provided by Stern. The Senate agreed but the House balked. The Senate came down to the $13 million amount in conference, but the House still wouldn’t agree.
Weathers said he would propose the state purchase again in next year’s budget. House members intend to have the property proposed in the sale appraised in the meantime.
According to records we published in an earlier article, Stern, his family and businesses spread about $500,000 in campaign donations around the statehouse in the last several years.
Originally proposed as a public-private partnership, the market is moving toward much more public and much less private ownership as these things often do. According to state officials, the original split was $24 million by the state and $35 million by private owners. Obviously, the purchase proposed by Weathers would reverse that split.
Adding to the questionable nature of the Purchase is the fact that the Lexington site has considerable environmental issues. It was a toxic chemical waste dump for many years and there are EPA warning signs on the property to this day. There are also restrictive covenants due to the contamination that seriously limit the available uses of the site.
Nevertheless, Weathers wants to move forward with the purchase, saying it would help serve the state’s farmers, especially those small farmers who rent space at the market.
According to sources we have talked to, most of the state’s small farmers have left the market. We were told that only a few large wholesalers are making use of the site. This brings up the question of just how much S.C. produce is sold at the market and how much income is currently generated on the property from rent. Is this a reason Stern wants to sell the property to the state?
The market played a small part in the recent ethics investigation into Gov. Nikki Haley’s actions while she was a House member. When the state decided to move the market years ago, Richland and Lexington counties each wanted the new market. A Richland County site was originally chosen with Wilbur Smith Associates hired as the architect/construction firm for the new market site.
When the project ran into wetlands and other issues in Richland, Wilbur Smith hired Haley as a “passive” consultant. Haley was a member of the Lexington County legislative delegation at the time, apparently putting her on both sides of the issue. According to testimony in the ethics case, Haley was not hired by Wilbur Smith to lobby for continuing the Richland site work.
However, Haley appears to be taking an interest in the proposed purchase. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-York, has been one of the most vocal members in opposition to the asking price.
Norman was seen emerging red-faced from a meeting with the governor at the statehouse Thursday muttering, “There’s no winning with her.”
Norman’s comment may have nothing to do with the land purchase, but we would bet against it. In this “reform-minded,” “transparent” executive administration, bending arms behind closed doors to get what she wants is a known Haley tactic.
Farmers Market land sale cut from budget (Commissioner Weathers Quoted) http://www.thestate.com/2012/07/06/2343975/farmers-market-land-sale-cut-from.html#storylink=cpy