South Carolina’s State Farmers Market has been plagued with questions and problems since the idea of moving it from its longtime home across from USC’s Williams-Brice Stadium first arose for the first time more than two decades ago.
The state forced the hand of the Department of Agriculture by selling the property to USC, which wanted it for expensive game-day parking. But there have been many missteps in the transition, from the state-sponsored bidding war between Richland and Lexington counties to the threatened boycott by small retailers of the Lexington site that made it clear that the The state agency’s priority was the large market-based wholesalers.
The 2010 decision sparked two critical reviews by the Legislative Audit Board of the deal’s finances and discouraged local retail customers, who never embraced the new, more remote facility near Interstates 26 and 77 in the rural Lexington County.
So it was good news that, more than a decade later, the state is finally following through on proposals to build a new retail market near the old site – a market for people who just want to buy fresh produce and the small farmers who want to sell to them.
As Skylar Laird of The Post and Courier reports, the new market will be funded with $4 million in state appropriations originally earmarked for the capital’s convention center expansion, which Columbia executives have wisely put aside. pending. The new market will also help green a food desert southeast of Columbia that is home to great poverty.
Of course, that hardly matters to the people of Charleston, or pretty much anywhere outside the Midlands, who have their own local farmers’ markets, much helped by a Department of Agriculture that seems learned valuable lessons about the value of retail markets.
What might matter are other news from the State Farmers Market. Jessica Holdman reports that the latest controversy involves contracts the Department of State Administration approved to move the Departments of Education and Natural Resources out of their longtime homes near the Statehouse and into new facilities at the new State Farmers Market in Lexington County.
The contracts with State Ports Authority Chairman Bill Stern will cost the state 20% more than competing bids, or $133 million over 20 years. Mr Stern is the Columbia developer who sold land at Farmers Market to the Department of Agriculture in 2013, drawing criticism. A state audit said the agency should have obtained an independent assessment rather than relying on figures provided by Mr Stern and that he should have been required to report campaign donations he gave to the Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers.
It’s never been clear that the state got a bad deal in 2013, and it’s unclear if it gets a bad deal this time around. But it’s also not clear that this is a good deal, as the state pushed ahead with the deals that came up when the real estate market was very different from what it is today. He should have bid again after the pandemic and global supply chain issues increased Columbia’s commercial rental inventory and sent construction costs skyrocketing.
For his part, Mr Stern says he kept his offer at 2019 levels, and he denied that his significant political connections influenced the contracts in his own way. Regardless of whether or not there was politics, there was definitely room for better decision-making.
Ms Holdman reports that the offers received from potential owners before the pandemic were not ideal, which is why the agencies decided to go with the more expensive and more distant offer from Mr Stern. In the fall of 2020, she reports, Natural Resources asked about trying to secure a new round of offers. But the administration department said there wasn’t enough time to do so for the next budget debate, and the agencies apparently decided it was more important to get their request for the budget. 2021-2022 budget than to make sure they had done things right.
To compound the problem, the Legislative Assembly’s chief budget writers at the time, Senator Hugh Leatherman and Representative Murrell Smith, told the Department of Administration that the leases did not need to be approved. by the Legislature’s Joint Obligations Review Committee or the State Fiscal Accountability Authority.
People love to complain about the lengthy approval process for major purchases by state agencies, but those reviews would probably have someone asking why the agencies were accepting the most expensive deals or why they were accepting deals that dated back nearly two years. — questions that did not arise when the legislator examined these two lines among the thousands of the State budget.
It’s possible the state didn’t fare any better looking for a new round of deals. But this latest chapter in the long and messy saga of Lexington County Farmers’ Market ownership hits home as many state officials ask, “What minimum does the law require me to do? ” rather than “What can I do best to serve the interests of taxpayers?”