Phill Blair

Phill Blair, co-owner of The Whig, is Best Troublemaker and Best Small Business Owner, and runner-up for Best Local Business Leader. The Whig wins Best Bar or Club, Best Bar Service, Best Neighborhood Bar — Downtown/Vista, and Best Place to Pick Up Guys, and runner-up for Coldest Beer, Best French Fries, Best Late-Night Food and Best Bathroom Wall Wisdom. (Whew!) Photo by John Carlos

Biggest Improvement in Columbia This Year

Fireflies/Spirit Communications Park

Runner-up: Gamecock men’s basketball

It’s tough to say how Columbia’s minor league baseball team and its second-year ballpark “improved” in the eyes of Columbians. After all, Spirit Communications Park already was voted the best ballpark in America last year. (Thanks, Ballpark Digest.) We’re guessing a certain quarterback-turned-outfielder who spent half of this season in Columbia likely changed your opinion of the whole Fireflies scene.

Honorable mentions: Main Street revitalization, public art

Best Use of Public Funds

Road improvements

Runner-up: Main Street revitalization

This year the state legislature passed the first gas tax raise in 30 years. It’s supposed to funnel $600 million a year to the South Carolina Department of Transportation to fix South Carolina’s aging and scared roads. Maybe soon you can stop swerving out of the way of all those metal plates.

Honorable mentions: Richland Library, Cayce Riverwalk

Biggest Waste of Public Funds

Columbia’s new tourism logo

Runner-up: Famously Hot New Year

Experience Columbia SC — the new name for the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau — forked over $150,000 for research and rebranding of the city’s tourism promotion efforts, ditching the decade-old Famously Hot in favor of a light-red block “C” logo and the tagline “The Real Southern Hotspot.” Now, the rebranding wasn’t entirely publicly funded — some of the money was from private sources — but some came from a taxpayer-funded state grant, and some from taxes on hotel guests. No matter the source, Free Times readers came down hard on the drab block C in this year’s Best Of voting. 

Honorable mentions: BullStreet development, Richland County penny tax


Photo by John Carlos

Worst Road

All of them

Runner-up: I-26

Yeah, we know the roads in South Carolina, well, suck. Sometimes it seems like an obstacle course out there. Or maybe a scene out of Mad Max: Fury Road. But help seems to be on the way: After literally years of rancorous debate, the state Legislature passed a substantial roads bill this year, with the state’s gas tax and vehicle sales tax both getting hiked to pay for highway repairs.

Honorable mentions: I-77, Two Notch Road

Best Local Politician

Nikki Haley

Runner-up: Steve Benjamin

Oh, Nikki, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blew our readers’ minds. So fine that despite only being a local figure for a little more than a quarter of the year you were voted Best Local Politician. You started the year by calling for a solution to roads and proved your merit by moving up to the big leagues. Now you represent South Carolina on the world stage.

Honorable mentions: Arik Bjorn, James Smith

Worst Local Politician

Joe Wilson

Runner-up: Lindsey Graham

Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson largely flies under the radar as Washington politicians go, so it really takes some doing for him to keep winning this category year after year. Oh, there was that time he hollered “You lie!” at President Barack Obama back in 2009. Man, you guys can really hold a grudge. 

Honorable mentions: Henry McMaster, Steve Benjamin

Best City or County Council Member

Mayor Steve Benjamin

Runner-up: Seth Rose

Sure, Benjamin only has one vote on City Council. But make no mistake: The mayor sets the pace in the City of Columbia. Always with an eye on city development, Benjamin also has looked a bit more globally this year: In June he signed a pledge to uphold the standards of the Paris Climate Agreement after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal.

Honorable mentions: Tameika Isaac Devine, Howard Duvall

Worst City or County Council Member

All of them

Runner-up: Moe Baddourah

We understand that municipalities sometimes have to raise taxes to take care of their responsibilities in essential services. But a tax increase, a water and sewer rate increase and a stormwater rate increase in the same year? Yikes, Columbia City Council. Meanwhile, Richland County Council remains almost hopelessly dysfunctional.

Honorable mentions: Tameika Isaac Devine, Norman Jackson

Best Activist Group or Effort

Pawmetto Lifeline

Runner-up: Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands

So if you don’t love puppies and kitties — or at least feel that we should do everything we can to make sure puppies and kitties find safe, loving homes — we’re pretty sure you’re a terrible person. And Pawmetto Lifeline fights that good fight with affordable spay/neuter and vaccination services, adoption and rescue efforts, among other efforts. Ruff! Meow! (Translation: Thank you!)

Honorable mentions: Congaree Riverkeeper, Girls Rock Columbia

Biggest Local ‘Hero’

Dawn Staley

Runner-up: Darius Rucker

By far one of the most exciting sports moment in Columbia came when the Gamecocks women’s basketball team won the NCAA national championship this previous season. Anyone who can get USC a title is going to be a hero around here. But along with the championship, Staley’s an Olympic gold medalist, and was named USA’s national team coach this year. She’s an exemplar in her field and inspiration to many.

Honorable mentions: Gamecock Jesus, Nikki Haley

Biggest Local ‘Zero’

Joe Wilson

Runner-up: Moe Baddourah

He got shouted down at a town hall earlier in the year by raging constituents over his support of repealing Obamacare. Everything else he said was booed and hissed as well. His few supporters were drowned out. The man couldn’t open his mouth without having his brain rattled by the shouts of people who disdain him. Mostly they seemed pissed that Wilson was just a Republican mouthpiece without any connection to anyone but the most radical in his district.

Honorable mentions: Steve Benjamin, Nikki Haley 

Phill Blair

Phill Blair, co-owner of The Whig, is Best Troublemaker and Best Small Business Owner, and runner-up for Best Local Business Leader. The Whig wins Best Bar or Club, Best Bar Service, Best Neighborhood Bar — Downtown/Vista, and Best Place to Pick Up Guys, and runner-up for Coldest Beer, Best French Fries, Best Late-Night Food and Best Bathroom Wall Wisdom. (Whew!) Photo by John Carlos

Best Troublemaker

Phill Blair

Runner-up: Ron Aiken

As great as he is at booking bands and planning events (see: the Jam Room Music Festival; the Columbia Museum of Art’s quarterly Arts & Draughts) and running a bar (see: The Whig), Phill Blair’s most reliable talent might be ruffling people’s feathers. He gives consistently opinionated and passionate (and often quite entertaining) voice to problems facing Columbia’s Main Street, Midlands events, and the local beer scene, among other topics, spurring healthy debate around town.

Honorable mentions: Filip Risteski, James Nowlin

Best Charity

Harvest Hope Food Bank

Runner-up: Pawmetto Lifeline

Harvest Hope provides for one of the most desperate consequences of people’s hardest times. They also give a platform for other local organizations to do charitable work by providing a place to act as a drop for food drives. The town would be a lot uglier without them around.

Honorable mentions: Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, PETSinc 

Best Green Business or Initiative

City Roots

Runner-up: Congaree Riverkeeper

City Roots doesn’t just grow sustainable crops; it also provides volunteer opportunities, educates people, hosts a farmers market and other events, and brings the community together. Those famous microgreens aren’t too bad, either. 

Honorable mentions: Kaliko Salon, Warren Solar

Best Local Business Leader

Emile DeFelice — Soda City Market

Runner-up: Phill Blair — The Whig

When DeFelice decided to move his All Local Farmers Market downtown and rebrand it as Soda City Market, he can’t have known how wildly successful he would be. The Saturday street fair has become a focal point for residents and tourists alike. 

Honorable mentions: Kristian Niemi — Bourbon; Bryan Tayara — Rosewood Market

Best Small Business Owner

Phill Blair — The Whig

Runner-up: Beach Loveland — Loveland Coffee

Sure, Blair runs everyone’s favorite cave-dark subterranean watering hole, The Whig. But he’s also a forward-thinking citizen who uses his business as a platform for bettering his city. For example, he is one of the driving forces behind the Columbia Museum of Art’s regular Arts & Draughts beer-music-art blowout on Main Street.

Honorable mentions: Petr Havran — PT’s 1109; Lee Chamberlain — Studio O2

Biggest “Our Dumb State” Moment

Voting for Trump

Runner-up: Not fixing our state’s roads

In last year’s Best Of Columbia, readers picked “Voting for Donald Trump in the [January] Primary Election” as the biggest “Our Dumb State” moment. Well, South Carolina voters did it again in November, resoundingly selecting Donald Trump to be the leader of the free world in the general election. The president of the United States is now a vindictive, small-brained lech who lacks basic human decency and whose own wife appears to detest him. Nice job, South Carolina. 

Honorable mentions: Protesters displaying Confederate Flag outside NCAA basketball tournament, Columbia’s new tourism logo

Best Place to Take Out-of-Towners

Riverbanks Zoo

Runner-up: Soda City Market

Looking to surprise that friend of yours who keeps blathering on about how there’s nothing cool in Columbia? Take them to the zoo. From that nifty reptile and aquarium area to the oh-so-cool howler monkeys to the recent grizzly bear and otter expansion, it really is quite the impressive attraction — a point proven by a record attendance mark of nearly 1.3 million in 2016.

Honorable mentions: The Vista, Lake Murray

Best Place to Work

University of South Carolina

Runner-up: Palmetto Citizens Federal Credit Union

Is there really a better view than the Horseshoe in Columbia? Is there a better atmosphere than one where people are trying to better themselves through knowledge? If you have to have a nine-to-five, those aren’t bad elements to be around.

Honorable mentions: Flock and Rally, Recruiting Solutions

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