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New State Farmers Market planned in Columbia with $4M boost from SC lawmakers

State Farmers Market in Dixiana (copy)

A Branchville farmer sells eggplant at the State Farmers Market in West Columbia in 2017. State lawmakers have set aside $4 million for a new farmers market closer to downtown Columbia. File/John Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — A new state farmers market is planned closer to downtown Columbia and already has received $4 million from the Legislature, The Post and Courier has learned.

Lawmakers moved the money originally set aside for the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center expansion to fund a new farmers market on Bluff Road near the Atlas Road intersection.

The new market would be 3½ miles down Bluff Road from the site of the former State Farmers Market across from Williams-Brice Stadium. That market moved to Lexington County near the intersection of Interstates 26 and 77 more than a decade ago.

The new farmers market would be modeled after the state's Pee Dee Farmers Market in Florence off Interstate 95, organizers said.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, a Columbia Democrat who requested the budget earmark, said it's too early for many specifics, including an opening date. The money set aside by legislators is enough "to get it up and running," he said.

Rutherford said he expected the market will be run by the state Department of Agriculture, which operates the state farmers markets.

S.C. Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers said his agency has not been officially approached about running the planned market, but he supported the idea. He said it would run in conjunction with the State Farmers Market and provide smaller farmers a place to sell their goods.

"The retail portion of the (State Farmers Market in Lexington County) has not met with the success we were hoping, so this may fill the void that the old downtown Columbia market used to serve," Weathers told The Post and Courier.  

The State Farmers Market relocated from its longstanding spot across from the University of South Carolina football stadium to West Columbia in 2010 after a tug-of-war between Richland and Lexington counties. A spot on Shop Road was considered before the market moved across county lines. USC is using the old market site for tailgate parking and football practice fields.

"When (the State Farmers Market) got moved out to Lexington County, a promise was made then that they would do a smaller farmers market down in (the Bluff Road) area," Rutherford said. "So this is the culmination of that promise."

While Shop Road was closer to downtown Columbia, Lexington County was more attractive to large wholesalers who wanted access to the interstates. 

The new market is planned for eight acres owned by a company tied to Optus Bank Chair Paul Mitchell and is a mile southeast of an I-77 interchange.

The area surrounding it is a food desert, something the farmers market will help alleviate, said Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Columbia Democrat who is pastor at Bible Way Church on Atlas Road.

"I grew up there, my mom is 88 years old, she still lives there," Jackson said. "And, unfortunately, in 88 years she said to me she's never once had a grocery store or a place where she could go and just get retail fresh fruit and vegetables right away."

The church has no financial ties to the market, Jackson said.

Bible Way sold the site to New Millennium Properties for $572,000 in November, according to land records. New Millennium shares an address with South Coast Paper, a Columbia company that Mitchell runs.

Mitchell, who grew up on Atlas Road, said he bought the land with plans of selling it for a good cause.

"I do think (a farmers market) is much needed," Mitchell said. "That area is being developed pretty well, and I do think having some type of food service capability would be great for that area."

Diane Sumpter, chief executive of professional services firm DESA Inc., is helping spearhead the market design. She was inspired by the Pee Dee State Farmers Market in Florence, which includes a drive-through shed and attracts more than 700,000 visitors each year, according to the Department of Agriculture's website. The state also operates a market in Greenville.

Sumpter wants to use half the land for a much smaller version of that farmers market, as well as a commercial kitchen. The other half, she wants the state to save for a future project — possibly a grocery store or pharmacy.

"Our main goal is to satisfy the needs of the residents so that they have fresh vegetables, it's no longer a food desert and we can see that growth," Sumpter said.

The $4 million was originally part of a $9 million earmark to help expand the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. Rutherford said new city leadership decided the convention center was no longer a priority and indicated it would not use the money for that project.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed that the expansion project has been put on hold," Experience Columbia President Bill Ellen said in a statement. "We hope that when City and Richland County officials and leaders feel the time is right, that we can all agree on a plan that they are comfortable to move forward with."

Of the remaining funds, $3 million will go toward the city's continuing relief efforts from the 2015 historic flood by the city and $2 million will go toward a new community center in the Colony neighborhood in north Columbia.

Rutherford said he hopes the community center will be the first step to providing resources to people in that low-income area. It's still in the initial planning phases, but he wants it to address problems like health care and violence.

"It's exciting to be able to do things that the city has needs for but can't always necessarily address," Rutherford said.

Reach Skylar Laird at (843) 830-1526. Follow her on Twitter @sky_latte_.