COLUMBIANA, Ohio — The thing about a city earning a title such as the "nicest place in America" is that outsiders often assume the people who live there don't have to work at being nice.
Well, anyone in this lovely city that straddles both the Mahoning and Columbiana Counties would say you do have to work at it. But like anything worthwhile in this world (including warmth, generosity, common courtesy and the selfless notion of paying it forward), it starts to come more easily with time.
It also helps that Columbiana has a deep sense of community, which means it is deeply committed to its success. People here are involved in the church, civic groups and the general betterment of the city.
It's not because it is a small city or because it oozes the type of charm Hallmark aims to capture in its Christmas movies. It's because everyone in town has a hand, large or small, in the community's health and well-being.
Spend less than five minutes with City Manager Lance Willard and you'll know exactly what I mean. Just before the annual Christmas parade, ask for his rundown on why his city earned the status of "nicest place" from Reader's Digest, and you'll get a pretty vivid picture.
Spend an additional five minutes with Willard and you'll find out why this city of 6,200 is prospering economically, growing in population and expanding its charming Main Street with innovative retail opportunities such as pop-ups and shared retail spaces. Its success has attracted the attention of nearby Rust Belt towns looking to replicate.
"I've had other communities call us — Salem, Lisbon, East Liverpool, Leetonia, Warren, Zanesville — and they're saying, 'Hey, what are you guys doing up there?'" Willard said of the string of neighboring cities and towns looking for guidance on economic development including how to procure grants for new infrastructure and attract small businesses.
His answer? "I just send them a zip file of what we've been doing."
None of Columbiana's success has come at the expense of the soul of the city — it has only made it nicer.
"If I could point to one place that embodies who the people of Columbiana are, I would point to Crown Productions at the Main Street Theater, where they showcase theater productions that feature only actors with special needs," Willard said just before those actors were set to load up on the first float to drive down Main Street in the annual parade.
All around the charming grid and city square is evidence of the things needed to keep a community together: plenty of churches and faith-based community groups holding their own, a phenomenon that many sister Rust Belt towns and cities have lost.
And with that loss comes decay, addiction, broken families and flight.
"All of our traditional organizations are very much intact," said Willard.
The Crown Theater special needs group was critical to the community's winning the Reader's Digest contest, explained Willard: "Mary Lou Wilson wrote a story to them explaining about her grandson who has disabilities and is in his 40s who finally flowered, if you will, in the local theater program. Without her story, which you need at least a box of Kleenex beside you to read, the designation would have never happened."
Willard wasn't elected to be city manager; he was voted on by members of the city council. While the mayor presides over the council and is involved in the community, the city manager runs day-to-day operations, sort of like a CEO.
The six council members are all elected on an at-large basis, with no party allowed to hold more than three seats.
For the most part, Willard explains, the council doesn't put a team jersey on when it comes to the city: "It is not partisan politics. It is actual effective governing."
It helps that everyone on the council is pretty even-keeled. That's not surprising, though, in the "nicest place in America."
This story isn't about small towns or small cities being better than large cities or large metropolitan areas. It is about a city that understands the value of community and everyone taking the time to invest in it. It's not uniquely Columbiana; it's uniquely American. Yet sometimes we lose our way in trying to be the best or the first in things that don't help the community and only help our feelings in the moment.
There is a little Columbiana in all of us. We should work on remembering that every day.
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