Our Towns

Readers Digest Award Will Fuel Columbiana’s Growth

COLUMBIANA, Ohio – After she lived in Florida for 25 years, small business owner Mary Ann Green came back to her roots – the city of Columbiana, the “Nicest Place in America,” according to Readers Digest.

“I grew up here, I loved living here. I didn’t necessarily intend to leave. The economy was not in a great place in the ’90s, so I went down there [Florida] and after 20 years, I knew I wanted to move.”

When she was talking to her brother about where she should move next, Green said when she is ready to retire, she would come back to Columbiana.

“He said, ‘Why are you going to wait until you retire?’ I think he thought it was a joke when I called him a couple weeks later and decided to move back,” she says.

When she lived in Florida, Green periodically visited her hometown and noticed the shift the city was taking. The small town, historic charm was still relevant, but Columbiana was getting “big city things,” she says.

Mary Ann Green returned to Columbiana two years ago and owns a public relations firm and other coaching businesses.

When Green decided to move back, the timing felt right. In addition to owning her public relations firm and other coaching businesses, she is on the marketing committee of the Columbiana Area Tourism Bureau.

“Downtown is still going strong,” she says. “There is something special about this area and maybe people who have grown up here and haven’t left don’t realize how lucky and fortunate we are.”

Readers Digest broke the news of the city’s award at the city’s Main Street Theater Thursday. Those in attendance thought the crew from Reader’s Digest was there to shoot a promotional video for the Nicest Place in America contest, but were shocked when they were told that Columbiana had won, says Bruce Kelley, editor-in-chief and chief content officer.

“The place went crazy,” he says

As the Nicest Place in America, Reader’s Digest is featuring Columbiana the city in a cover story by Jeremy Greenfield, who writes, “In Columbiana, Ohio, nobody gets left behind, from blue-collar workers, to the wealthy, to folks who sometimes need a little extra accommodation.”

“It’s incredibly exciting,” says Bryan Blakeman, mayor of Columbiana. “It reiterates what people in the city already knew. It shares our story with the rest of the world and I don’t think you could have a better day.”

Being named the Nicest Place in America shows a strong sense of community and volunteerism, adds Lance Willard, city manager.

“I think it’s brought us together even closer since we learned in June that we were in the running,” he said. “We all worked together to compete on a national level and we have less than 7,000 people here in the community.”

Shops along Park Avenue in downtown Columbiana.

The economic growth in Columbiana is “thriving” right now, he points out.

On Oct. 3, Zarbana Aluminum Extrusions LLC closed on a $4.9 million building and land purchase to expand its operations here. The purchase included a plant building at 41738 Esterly Drive plus 60 acres of adjacent land.

The extrusion plant’s operations manager, Dave Baco, says the company will build a 60,000-square-foot addition to house a 20-inch press, “which will be the largest state-of-the-art extrusion press in the United States.”

Zarbana looks to have everything ready by the end of 2020, creating 10 to 20 new jobs, according to Baco. The press will be delivered in March and be operational in May,.

Meanwhile, community reinvestment area legislation passed by city council in September 2018 is driving new construction by providing a 100%, real property tax abatement for up to 15 years on construction of houses. Earlier this month, Willard reported the city is on pace to issue building permits for 68 new units, including 18 single-family homes.

With the recognition from Reader’s Digest, things will only get better, he says.

“We’re going to put this out there when somebody’s looking to move here,” Willard says.

The selection will also help raise awareness of Columbiana among those living outside of the area, says Donald Arthurs, owner of Main Street Theater, which was featured in the cover story.

“This is a town in the middle of a bunch of areas that had the steel industry that shutdown and now we’re dealing with Lordstown, and yet it’s still maintained and different,” Arthurs says. “People still want to move into Columbiana to live, to do business, to entertain instead of out of state.”

“There’s something special about this area. The people make it special,” he continued.

For Main Street Theater, Arthurs say the recognition will have a positive impact on its staff and bring more attention to the Crown Theater Productions Special Needs program.

Donald Arthurs hopes the recognition draws attention to the city and special needs programs at Main Street Theater.

Since 2015, Crown Theater has put on two performances annually featuring a cast of individuals with special needs, from toddlers to seniors, according to its website.

“One of our goals is to almost cookie cutter that process we do so that it can be done across the nation in other theaters,” he says. “Honestly, the special needs group is a demographic that really hasn’t been given some of the opportunities they deserve.”

Reader’s Digest’s Kelley started the Nicest Place in America contest to counter the narrative that the United States is divided and people don’t trust each other, he says. In his experience at the publication, many local places bring out the best in each other.

“We wanted to crowdsource that spirit and spotlight it,” he says.

Every spring, staff at Reader’s Digest enlists Americans to nominate a place – whether it’s a town, neighborhood, block, church or school – as a place where people are kind to each other and where people work together.

To surprise the town with the announcement that the city had won the contest, two co-conspirators, Erich Offenburg from Crowne Theater Productions, and Main Street Theater’s Arthur, told “little white lies” for a couple of weeks about why people were going to be in the theater before the unveiling.

“They pulled it off because they’re theater people,” Kelley says. “Everyone in the theater thought we were just shooting a promotional video for Nicest Places in America. About halfway through, we shocked them with the news that Columbiana was the winner.”

Staff at Main Street Theater planned an event that would work for the reveal, Arthurs relates.

“They contacted us and said they wanted to create this video promotion. They wanted to film one of our special needs rehearsals for Shrek,” Arthurs says. “The whole plan was they were going to get the kids on stage, do three songs while the folks from Reader’s Digest snuck in the back door.”

After the three songs, videographers interacted with the audience and at the end, Offenburg dismissed the audience temporarily, Arthurs says.

“Everybody was scratching their heads,” he says. “So they all started to get up and Erich pretended he got a phone call from Reader’s Digest.”

Everyone came back in to sit down and after more promotional stuff, Kelley was introduced and the announcement was made.

What followed was a video from the anchors of the Today Show saying congratulations to Columbiana and to not tell anyone until they reveal at the third hour Friday morning that their city is the winner, Kelley says.

“It was intense because they realized they were going to be on national TV,” he says. “It was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had as a journalist.”

The city’s selection didn’t surprise Rhonda Pahanish, co-owner of Primitive Gatherings, a handmade home decor store on Main Street. “It’s a nice, small town atmosphere,” she says.

Columbiana is a small, Hallmark movie type town, observes Linda Wilson, a frequent shopper in Columbiana.

“Everywhere you look, you see creativity,” she says. “The signage, beautiful arrangements and entrances that are warm and welcoming. That’s what people love.”

A vendor at Main Street Shop, Diana Winters, describes Columbiana as a “godly town.”

“You’ll find churches on almost every street and it’s a helpful town,” she says. “When there’s a need, we gather together to help our neighbors. It’s a sports related town. There’s been records set here. It’s a wonderful, wholesome, godly place.

Copyright 2019 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.