If the Southeastern Agricultural Center and Farmers Market were a horse, long ago it would have been pronounced lame — and put out of its misery with a single shot. Instead the center is like a cat, blessed with more than a single life, and remains open, even as it is a drain on taxpayers.
But if state legislators are true to their word, the center must demonstrate by early next year that it can survive a substantial funding cut or it could be padlocked. If that happens, it can be convincingly argued that the center was doomed from when it first opened in 1999. Much has conspired against its success.
First, the Southeastern Agricultural Center and Farmers Market was constructed backward, the farmers market opening in 1999, the meeting center in 2000, and finally the pavilion earlier this year. The pavilion should have come first, the meeting center next, and then the farmers market.
Then, in 2008, major upgrades to U.S. 74 rerouted the highway only slightly, but enough to steer motorists away from the complex, making a stop that was once quick and easy more complicated and time-consuming — and perhaps not worth the bother.
The farmers market has never been supported locally, either by vendors or customers. It is a difficult trip to make from most corners of this county to buy a tomato, collards and corn, especially when the customer is going to drive past other roadside stands that offer essentially the same produce at similar or better prices.
Although the April opening of the pavilion is promising, there is much lacking, including horse stalls that are needed for equestrian events that will attract horse enthusiasts from beyond the immediate area. There is no guarantee of funding going forward, although the county and city have stepped up with $50,000 each for the stalls, and the Golden LEAF Foundation is expected to come up with the balance.
And finally, the center has never been ably and aggressively marketed. The Robesonian’s newsroom is seldom contacted to either promote or cover an event at the facility, and whatever advertising has been done has been ineffective.
There is a bit of good news. A state study that was commissioned and delivered the ultimatum found that the meeting center is among the busiest of seven state-run agriculture centers in the state. Also, supporters have a valid point when they point out that the pavilion hasn’t been given any time to demonstrate that it can operate in the black, and stem the flow of red from the entire complex.
So the future of the Southeastern Agricultural Center and Farmers Market isn’t guaranteed, particularly if Republicans maintain control of the General Assembly, and continue paring away at the state budget. Robeson County, heavily Democratic, would be a logical target.
There remains time to turn things around. But the complex will have to manage in the next eight months what it hasn’t so far in 13 years — or burn another of those lives.