Biggest Improvement in Columbia This Year
Removal of the Confederate Flag
Runner-up: Riverbanks Zoo Improvements
South Carolinians wondered for so long what it would take to remove the Civil War-era (and rather racist) relic from the state’s most prominent building. Well, we have a cold answer: the shock from a mass shooting of an African-American pastor and eight of his congregants by an alleged white supremacist. Next time, South Carolina lawmakers might let logic prevail in removing the remaining anachronistic (and hateful) symbols in the state rather than waiting for another tragedy.
Best Use of Public Funds
Flood Relief and Recovery
Runner-up: Spirit Communications Park/Bull Street Redevelopment
Rarely has public funding, whether it be city, state or federal, been so needed in the Columbia area as after the devastating flooding of October 2015. The 1,000-year rain event claimed lives, ruined homes and businesses, wiped out roads and bridges and threatened to take out the Capital City’s drinking water supply. The federal government alone dedicated more than $155 million in aid for the state of South Carolina in the aftermath of the flood.
Biggest Waste of Public Funds
Confederate Flag Display at the Relic Room
Runner-up: Richland County Penny Tax
OK, so the state Legislature didn’t approve any funding this year for displaying the Confederate flag — removed a year ago from the State House — at the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. But the proposal for displaying the flag was $3.6 million. $3.6 million!! Pro tip, state legislators: Go to a frame shop. Get a nice frame made for the flag. Frame it. Hang it on the wall in the museum. Done.
All Of Them
Runner-up: Malfunction Junction (I-20 & I-26)
Even if you would describe the quality of our city streets as “decent,” take a few minutes to explore the roads less traveled, and you too can experience the torment that ails us all. Fortunately, Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill earlier this year that would allow up to $2.2 billion to be used for improvements to road infrastructure. Godspeed.
Gov. Nikki Haley was voted both Best and Worst Local Politician. Photo by John Carlos
Best Local Politician
Gov. Nikki Haley
Runner-up: Mayor Steve Benjamin
Gov. Nikki Haley had quite a year, whether it was giving the official Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union, criticizing Donald Trump’s “irresponsible talk,” or leading the state through its recovery from October’s flood. Here at home, the state legislature finally passed a few of Haley’s long-term priorities, most notably ethics reform — and the economic development wins just keep coming.
Worst Local Politician
Gov. Nikki Haley
Runner-up: U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham
When you manage to win both the “best” and “worst” in the same category, you must be a busy person. And while Gov. Haley did some notable things this year, she also continues to struggle with transparency, and her policies — like opposing Medicaid expansion — continue to hurt South Carolinians. Meanwhile, despite her principled stand against Donald Trump, she still plans to vote for him this fall.
Best City or County Council Member
Mayor Steve Benjamin
Runner-up: Seth Rose
While the political makeup of Columbia City Council has changed — and has admittedly made it a bit tougher for the mayor to get his agenda items passed — Benjamin is still the boss in the Capital City. Perhaps his biggest pet project, Spirit Communications Park, opened this year to rave reviews (Ballpark Digest named it the top ballpark in America). The city’s financial books are in order, which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Plus, Benjamin just had a plum speaking gig at the Democratic National Convention.
Worst City or County Council Member
Mayor Steve Benjamin
Runners-up (tie): Moe Baddourah, Tameika Isaac Devine
Not all is rosy for the mayor. He doggedly pursued a 4 percent water and sewer rate increase for this year, one that would have come on the heels of a 9.5 percent water/sewer increase a year ago. Alas, a majority of Council stiff-armed Benjamin on the measure, saying their constituents couldn’t shoulder another increase this year. There is no way the mayor would have lost that vote two years ago. But on the “new” City Council, Benjamin has to fight for every inch. Maybe that’s a good thing for water/sewer customers.
Best Activist Group or Effort
Runner-up: PETS, Inc.
This nonprofit, which is located in a clean, well-equipped facility on Bower Parkway, offers spay/neuter, vaccination and transportation services, as well as a stringent adoption program. Its mission is to establish a no-kill community in the Midlands, meaning no healthy, adoptable dog or cat dies because it is homeless.
Biggest Local ‘Hero’
Flood relief volunteers
Runner-up: Officer Greg Alia
Even months after the destructive downpour, many people were still dealing with wreckage caused by the historic flooding that rocked Columbia last year. The 1,000-year-flood could have been a sore spot for the state, continuing to fester in the months that followed. But, on the whole, many areas have recovered in fine form thanks in no small part to flood relief volunteers. Hats off to you all, and thanks. We couldn’t have done it without you.
Biggest Local ‘Zero’
Gov. Nikki Haley
Runner-up: S.C. Sen. Lee Bright
As they have since she took office in 2011, Free Times readers sure do dislike Nikki Haley.
Harvest Hope Food Bank
Runner-up: Pawmetto Lifeline
Harvest Hope provided food assistance for 2,125,460 people in its 20-county service area during the 2014-15 fiscal year. That’s a lot of food — and a lot of good.
Best ‘Green’ Business or Initiative
Soda City Market
Runner-up: City Roots Farm
Soda City, the wildly popular Saturday morning market on Main Street, doesn’t look like its slowing down anytime soon. The weekly street party features food trucks, artists, musicians and various vendors, some of which are “green” businesses, including those who provide fresh produce.
Soda City Market’s Emile DeFelice wins Best Local Business Leader. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe
Best Local Business Leader
Emile DeFelice — Soda City Market
Runner-up: Phill Blair — The Whig
Emile DeFelice is sort of the Mayor of Main Street. His Soda City Market continues to be overwhelmingly well-received, bringing hordes of people to the city center every weekend for food and fellowship. The two-time agriculture commissioner candidate also owns a shop on Main Street — Nest, the gift store tucked into the bottom of the Marriott.
Best Small Business Owner
Ricky Mollohan — Mr. Friendly’s, Solstice, Cellar on Greene
Runners-up (tie): Kellan Monroe and Andrew Johnson — Craft and Draft; Sean McCrossin — Drip, Scoopy Doo
Running a restaurant is tough work. Running three top-quality fine dining restaurants? Well, that’s practically superhuman. Ricky Mollohan is an energetic, outspoken, hard-working guy, and his staff and customers obviously appreciate it.
Biggest “Our Dumb State” Moment
Voting for Donald Trump in the Primary Election
Runner-up: Failure to Repair Roads
A bulk of Trump’s support came from South Carolina counties with the least educated, least wealthy and least white populations. Still, Trump led Palmetto State polls among all types of Republicans — conservative, moderate, evangelical, worried about the economy, worried about foreign relations. South Carolina got what it asked for.
Best Place to Take Out-Of-Towners
Riverbanks Zoo and Garden
Runner-up: The Vista
We hope we’re not breaking any news for you here: Columbia has a rad zoo. Last year, nearly 1.3 million guests visited Riverbanks, one of South Carolina’s top tourist attractions, following the completion of a $36-million park-wide expansion and development project. In addition to the more than 2,000 animals and the 70-acre botanical garden, Riverbanks also sports a 1,000-foot zipline, a ropes course and a climbing wall — and hosts popular annual events such as Boo at the Zoo, Brew at the Zoo and Lights Before Christmas.
Forest Acres’ slogan is “A City Apart.” But while the community is incorporated separately from the surrounding City of Columbia, what makes it a great place to live is its distinct character — a relaxed small town feel bolstered by a healthy number of great local restaurants and businesses, but still only a hop, skip and a jump from Main Street, Five Points and the Vista. It’s a place where you can step away from the rest of Columbia’s bustle without going too far.
Best New Home Community
Saluda River Club
Runner-up: Woodcreek Farms
The amenities at this planned community in Lexington can’t be contained in one Best Of Columbia write-up. So here are a few— a dog park, a community garden, walking trails, preschool music classes, a book club, card nights, kayaking, canoeing, yoga, music on the river and an outdoor exercise gym.
Best Apartment Community
Runner-up: Granby Crossing
With its proximity to the rivers, to downtown Columbia and to major roads, not to mention its clean, modern look, CanalSide is a beautiful and convenient place to live.
Best Retirement Community
Runner-up: Wildewood Downs
Many assume those who live in retirement communities are looking to slow down. Not so. Many are looking for a place with amenities that suit retirees, but still offers a vibrant, fun environment. Still Hopes is just that type of place, nestled onto 39 acres of beautifully landscaped, worry-free resort-style land just minutes from downtown Columbia.
Best Off-Campus Student Housing
Runner-up: The Hub
It’s no easy task to make a brand-new development fit the design and community feel of a historic mill village, but that’s exactly what PMC Property Group has done. The renovated Olympia and Granby Mills are now joined by a third residential building, 612 Whaley, which also boasts some great restaurant tenants.