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Columbia: Where friendliness (and lots of excitement) flows

This weekend, The Post and Courier published a not-so-nice piece about my beloved hometown. Here’s my friendly Letter to the Editor response.

Dear Mr. Rowe and Mr. Hicks:

Frustrated, dismayed, embarrassed and quite frankly angry. Those are the feelings invoked by the Brian Hicks’ column in The Post and Courier – an insulting piece about one of its sister cities. In a state so small, we are better supporting each other’s success. Furthermore, with P&C’s parent company’s recent acquisition of Columbia’s popular Free Times weekly, it seems inappropriate that there is city bashing among the same team.

First, let me be among the many to say that I enjoy Charleston and visit often for personal and professional travel. The data speaks for itself – the growth in Charleston is to be commended. The challenge is and will be how to manage and plan the in-migration and development, while keeping the southern charm for which Charleston is so famous.

As we’re becoming friendly, I’ll gladly resurrect Columbia’s former tagline, “Where friendliness flows.” Anecdotally, I have never been to a city where more people smile and say, “Hello” and “Good morning” on the sidewalk. On this Memorial Day week, Columbians can be especially proud that our community was recognized among the most friendly places for military installations, their personnel and their families, earning the distinguished title of “Purple Heart City.” The number of military retirees in Columbia is a true reflection of our friendliness.

But there is so much more. Mr. Hicks, please allow me to refresh your knowledge on what makes Columbia a unique and thriving community:

Strength in diversity: I believe a city is only as strong as the diversity of its people, of its employers, of its leaders, of its civic and cultural organizations, and of its opportunities to have quality of life. There are a number of recent data measurements that point to Columbia’s strength in diversity, including accolades from U.S. News and World Report, Kiplinger Magazine, Partners for Livable Communities, Forbes/Milliken Institute, and Entrepreneur.com (among many others).

Nationally ranked and awarded: Our Columbia Museum of Art was recognized this year with top honors through the National Medal of Museum and Library Service – in fact the award is being presented this week by First Lady Michelle Obama. Our Richland Library system was among the finalists for the same honor and boasts an intentional reputation among its peers. Our Riverbanks Zoo is a regional and national treasure – with zip code counts to prove it’s a destination, even for Charlestonians. (We promise, we won’t tell anyone…)

Downtown renaissance: In the largest city in the state, you can find ample affordable downtown and suburban housing, including historic housing, with home prices and cost of living reflecting average salaries offered by our diverse employment base. I have the fun of living 1.8 miles from the state’s capitol building and on the city’s largest park in a beautiful and historic bungalow home in a neighborhood which welcomes all walks of life. Our Main Street, Vista, Five Points and the new Bull Street district are each undergoing transformations of their own. While new construction is rampant downtown, dozens of historic buildings are being renovated, reflecting a glimpse of the best of Columbia’s past and of its exciting future.

Downtown with a water view: While we don’t have the ocean, we do have a treasured three-river district, with dozens of miles of riverwalk trails and many more coming online. Beautiful destinations including Lake Murray, Congaree National Park and Harbison State Forest each adjoin the river system, and all are within 20 minutes of our downtown.

Education destination: Columbia is home to more than a dozen higher education institutions, including the state’s flagship – and largest – university, which carries top billing for five of its degree programs. Dare I also mention the Gamecocks?

Cultural haven: The Nickelodeon, or since we’re becoming friendly, please call it The Nick, is the only non-profit film theater in South Carolina, home to more than 25,000 visitors each year, and thousands more through the Indie Grits Film Festival, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this spring. Town Theatre is the country’s (yes, the country’s) oldest community theatre in continuous use. Columbia Marionette Theatre is the only free-standing theatre in the nation devoted entirely to marionette arts. There are hundreds of vibrant destinations, events and festivals in Columbia, most of which are located in the heart of our city.

Columbia is not Charleston – nor are we trying to become Charleston. We are focused on building our bench of unique and diverse assets, while offering a high-quality and friendly place to live for our citizens and our guests.

In the spirit of friendliness, I’d offer Mr. Hicks and the Editorial Board a challenge to visit my home city and I’m even happier to be your host for the day. My guess is you’ll be back – and bring your family and friends.

Katherine Swartz Hilton
Columbia native, boomeranger and champion
Director, Center for Leadership and Co-Director, McNair Center for Entrepreneurism, Columbia College

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