- Associated Press - Thursday, August 27, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The South Carolina State Farmers Market has not been able to support itself without taxpayer money and the Department of Agriculture should tighten oversight and find new ways to support the site, state auditors said Thursday.

The Legislative Audit Council said in a report that lawmakers first gave the Department of Agriculture $300,000 in 2013 to cover a deficit and help run the market that opened in Lexington County in 2010.

That amount has stayed in the budget yearly since. The Council said the report was conducted at the request of General Assembly members.

The market is a public-private partnership between the Department of Agriculture and private businesses. It had moved to the new site several years earlier from a previous location across from Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia.

“We found that the market is unable to sustain itself with the revenue generated from leases, events, and activities at the market,” the report said.

The report said the Department of Agriculture should take a number of steps to improve oversight of vendors and developers to increase revenue, such as taking more care to collect certain fees and to increase rent from buildings on the site. Another suggestion was to charge fees, such as admission for special events and parking.

The report said its review found two buildings on the site hadn’t produced income for about 16 months. “These buildings can potentially be utilized to produce necessary revenue to help sustain market operations,” the report said.

In 2013, the state spent $7 million to buy nine acres of land to expand the market. Rental income from the property was supposed to help pay for market operations.

In the House, some members balked at the project, arguing there had been a lack of vetting of the deal in the chamber.

According to a report in The State newspaper, the Budget and Control Board approved the $7 million purchase of the land from State Ports Authority Chairman Bill Stern. Farmers were supposed to lease space and help support the facility.

Gov. Nikki Haley, the board’s chairwoman, said taxpayers should not have to fund the market, and that the expansion would help make it self-sustainable.

Department of Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers took issue with the audit in a letter attached to the report.

He said the review “does not present a complete picture of the State Farmers’ Market background, purchases and operations and should not be presented to the public as such.”

Weathers said he faulted the report for “insufficient fact gathering efforts leading to erroneous conclusions” and “an alarming lack of basic working knowledge of business principles that should concern members of the General Assembly and the public.”

One of the lawmakers who sought the audit, Rep. J. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said he agreed in general with the audit’s findings and its suggestions for improving its revenue stream.

“The sustainability and viability of the market are the goals,” Simrill said in a telephone interview. “What you want is to make it successful and get people coming to the market. I believe it is on the right trajectory.”


Follow Susanne M. Schafer on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/susannemarieap

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