S.C. State Farmers Market groundbreaking set today

South Carolina's agriculture chief plans to break ground for the new State Farmers Market today – for the second time in two years.

But, Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers said, this time the decade of wrangling over where to build the 174-acre site where farmers from across the state can sell their produce should be over.

“I'm ready to push dirt instead of paper,” Weathers said Tuesday.

Workers have begun clearing land for the market on U.S. 321 in Lexington County about two miles from the end of Interstate 77.

Weathers said that, if all goes as planned, the market should open toward the end of spring 2010. The state is paying $22.5 million, with private companies and the county picking up any additional cost.

The State Farmers Market now stands across the street from Williams-Brice Stadium. Once the new market opens, the land will be given to the University of South Carolina.

Weathers has grabbed a ceremonial shovel before. The state broke ground on a site in Richland County for the market in June 2006, but private vendors never got behind the plans and Weathers decided on the current location more than a year later.

The dispute between the state and Richland County is now in court. The county sued because it wants back the land it gave the state for the site. The state wants the county to pay for $2.5 million of work done before the deal went bust.

The county has refused to pay, citing changes the state made, such as building a pond on the property and lessening access to a rail line, making it harder to develop the land for a manufacturer or other industry, Richland County Councilman Mike Montgomery said.

“The ‘improvements' they did are not worth anything if you don't put in a farmers market,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery suspects the agriculture department backed out of its deal with Richland County when costs started to rise and was negotiating for the Lexington County site before the other deal fell through.

Weathers refused to talk about the suit, saying it detracted from what should be a celebration. He said the state was saving more than $20 million by building on the new site.

The agriculture department plans to move some of its offices and labs to the new site.