New State Farmers Market Appraisal Released, But Questions Remain

January 31, 2013

Investigative Reports

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SC State Farmer's MarketA state Department of Agriculture proposal to expand the State Farmers Market in Lexington County with the purchase of private property owned by the S.C. Ports Authority chairman remains controversial with the release Wednesday of a new appraisal of land that eventually could be sold.

An appraisal released in May listed the value of four market properties owned Ports Authority Chairman Bill Stern and totaling 26 acres, along with two smaller parcels owned by another developer, at a total of $15.74 million.

A new appraisal revealed Wednesday afternoon by Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers put the total value of the property in the expansion project at $14.4 million, though it was not immediately known whether the new study, which was done by a different appraiser, covered the same property in last year’s appraisal.

Department spokeswoman Kelly Coakley did not respond to written and phone messages from The Nerveby publication of this story.

Weathers testified to the state House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Economic Development and Natural Resources that the property transaction is “legal, appropriate and proper.”

“Everything we did (with this new appraisal) would have been done regardless,” Weathers said.

“We want to make sure the state makes a good business decision, and we think this is a good business decision,” South Carolina Farm Bureau President David Winkles told the subcommittee.

Rep. Ralph Norman, R-York, who is not a member of the subcommittee, called on the panel to have an “independent” group to examine the new appraisal done by Columbia-based Marshall Dodds Co. Inc.Last year’s appraisal was done by Rosen Appraisal Associates of Columbia.

“Appraisals are like anything else. Let this be vetted,” Norman told the subcommittee.

Also speaking to the subcommittee was Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, who said it’s time to move forward and try to make the market more profitable.

The Nerve first reported in May that the S.C. Senate slipped $16.3 million into the proposed 2012-13 state budget for an unspecified expansion project at the market’s location on Charleston Highway in Lexington County. The proposed appropriation was later dropped.

The Nerve also detailed Weathers’ plan to spend millions in tax dollars to buy market property owned by Stern. Weathers did not make public Stern’s connection to the market until after The Nerve’s initial story.

No one has suggested any wrongdoing, but the questionable arrangement compelled several lawmakers to seek an audit of the proposed sale by the Legislative Audit Council, the General Assembly’s investigative arm.

Norman sought the audit along with Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York; Rep. Deborah Long, R-Lancaster; Rep. Dennis Moss, R-Cherokee; Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York; and Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York and who chairs the Ways and Means subcommittee. The audit has not yet been completed.

“The answers to most of Rep. Norman’s requests are found in the 2010 audit performed by the Legislative Audit Council. Nevertheless, in the interest of full transparency, the Department of Agriculture is prepared to provide responses to members of the General Assembly,” Weathers said in a previous statement to The Nerve.

The 2010 report most notably found the Agriculture Department spent more than $4.4 million to develop a new market site in Richland County before scrapping those plans.The Lexington County market began operating in September 2010, replacing the former longtime market on Bluff Road in Richland County.

Norman said a second audit is needed because the one in 2010 “left more questions than answers.”

Stern, who runs a private development company called Stern & Stern and Associates out of a Columbia-area bank building he owns, called the efforts nearly one year ago an inquiry, not a finalized deal.

While Weathers noted the process to find a new home for the Farmers Market beginning in 2008 saved taxpayers money, it requires a state subsidy to keep the current location afloat because there’s an annual $300,000 shortfall. Weathers said that has become more of a trend with farmers markets in the Southeast.

The State Farmers Market, which is a public-private partnership, is the second-largest such market in the Southeast based on volume of produce sold and distributed, according to Department of Agriculture records. The department’s annual accountability report for fiscal 2011 states annual sales at the market can exceed $250 million.

Norman said he would be willing to come back and talk further about the new appraisal.

“I think we need to move forward with this. No one thinks this is a win anymore,” said Finlay, who noted that he’s a farmer in Richland County. “I think we can get a tie.”

Finlay said the lease stipulations for some of the sheds where farmers sell produce make it difficult for the market to generate a profit.

Weathers acknowledged that, too.

Meanwhile, subcommittee member Rep. Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville, said there’s pressure from the legislative leadership to move the project along the budget process.

“We have pressure to support this from the higher ups,” Loftis said, adding, “I think I’m being hampered here for being objective.”

Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or curt@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt.