People everywhere tend to take their own backyard for granted, while assuming that somehow the grass is always greener in the neighbor’s yard next door. It could be argued that this tendency among longtime residents is one of Columbia’s greatest challenges. Like so many others who grew up here, it took my leaving for a few years to be able to fully recognize Columbia for the vibrant city it is, and one with incredible potential. Now, when I meet new residents to the area, a frequent reaction is, “Why are Columbians so down on Columbia? No, you aren’t Charleston or Greenville, but Columbia is amazing!” We have got to stop perpetuating and endorsing this negativity about our city, especially since those of us who grew up here have the ability to be its very best ambassadors, sharing insider local flavor with newcomers.
Another component to this challenge is talent retention — a shocking 91 percent of USC graduates don’t stay in Columbia! Rising to meet both components of Columbia’s self-identity dilemma is Columbia Opportunity Resource through its “Crash Course Columbia” and “Capture Columbia” programs. Ashley Elsey and Kelsey Bickley started these engaging tours of Columbia several years ago — targeting students through “Capture” and professionals with “Crash Course” — to help connect people with the city on a deeper level and find opportunities for meaningful experiences, wherever their interests lie. I joined in on their October tour, which started Thursday evening with happy hour at the Graduate Hotel’s artsy bar followed by dinner at Saluda’s.
While sitting by Ashley at Saluda’s, she leaned over to explain, “We are connecting people with the business owners, the managers, the chefs — giving people a behind the scenes peek so that they feel like insiders when they leave. It’s a VIP experience of Columbia so that people are exposed to all of the details that make our city unique.”
True to this statement, Andrew Thompson, general manager of Saluda’s, soon came out to welcome us and offer a more detailed description of the set three-course menu, which included entree options of grilled pork chop with crispy chipotle, pan seared salmon with cucumber crab salad, braised short rib with bacon and brown sugar collards, or the restaurant’s famous shrimp and grits.
Friday was a day packed with excursions to locales such as breakfast on Boyd Plaza from Drake’s Duck-In and Indah Coffee, a historic tour of the Main Street District, a public art scavenger hunt in the Vista, a behind-the-scenes tour of Riverbanks Zoo, and a professional development session at Steel Hands Brewery … just to name a few!
Kelsey and Ashley agree that one of the biggest challenges in arranging each tour is choosing what not to do, because there are simply so many wonderful things to experience in Columbia. Read more about the current efforts leaders have underway to make Columbia more competitive on page 148, starting with a better self-image.
The bottom line is that “potential” is just one of the many positive aspects Columbia already has.