Robbie Robertson had a good meal, steak and wine, at a downtown restaurant not long ago. As he walked outside, he was struck by a proud feeling that Columbia has become a good city, active and social and beautiful.
Then a possum ambled across the parking lot.
Robertson laughed as he told the story, but the image captures the way many people in Columbia see their hometown. It's a progressive Southern city that wants to keep hold of its quirky, small-town charm.
"You need to embrace what you are," said Robertson, a 44-year-old writer and advertising professional.
When voters go to the polls April 6, they'll chose the mayor they want to create a course for Columbia's future. In a midsized city that's aiming to grow, the tension will be how to change without spoiling the characteristics that make people happy.
Setting a vision is going to be tough for another reason.
For six of the past eight years, City Hall spent millions more than it took in. Taxpayers are nervous about what that might mean for property taxes and other fees.
Cathy Novinger said the city's financial constraints might create a valuable opportunity. The mayor and City Council will be forced to prioritize, she said.
Pick and choose. Be more intentional.
"This gives us a time to stand back and make those tough decisions that you wouldn't have to do any other time," said Novinger, 60, a businesswoman who has lived downtown for the past 11 years.
"Without that crisis, it was too easy to just float along."
People say they're happy with Columbia because:
- It's a college town, there's always plenty to do.
- It's a good place to raise a family.
- It's not too big, it's easy to get involved and to get noticed.
- It's convenient. It only takes 10 or 20 minutes to get just about anywhere.
- Columbia is safe - much safer than big cities nearby, like Charlotte and Atlanta.
Terrance Henderson, 32, said Columbia has provided him with opportunities he wouldn't have had in a larger city.
"I've had more time and a little less pressure to develop what I'm doing," said Henderson, a dancer and jazz choreographer who teaches, too.
Henderson said it's easy to find "small pockets" of things that are happening in Columbia, whether it's a new belly-dancing group, Thursday night jazz at the Hunter Gatherer, small theater companies popping up or an exhibition at the 701 Whaley Center for Contemporary Art.
"People aren't afraid to try stuff; they're not afraid to do something that might not work," he said. "I've met so many interesting people."
And people with good hearts.
"People are very open to others coming in and getting involved in the community and being a part of South Carolina," said Nate Barber, 55, a banker who works downtown and lives in Northeast Richland.
"I'm happy," said Don Weaver, 47, a Realtor and property manager who came to Columbia for college and never left. "My wife and I chose Columbia. I feel safe in this city."
Bobby Donaldson, 38, is a history professor at the University of South Carolina who has become invested in Columbia during his 10 years here. He lives in Forest Acres.
"Columbia is a city of great history and traditions," Donaldson said. "As a historian, I'm concerned about how the city is changing in terms of its buildings and its downtown core."
People are expecting change, and they're eager to hear the plan.
Of course, they have some ideas of their own.
"The first thing we have to do as a city is decide what we want to be when we grow up," said Fred Easley, a 50-year-old businessman who's active in the Melrose neighborhood, off Millwood Avenue.
"I see the vision with Innovista ... and we are betting quite a pretty penny on a hydrogen economy," he said of USC's plans to create jobs with a new research campus that focuses on alternative energy. "I'm crossing my fingers and hoping we're going in the right direction with that."
Easley and others said the city has made gains, project by project. But, "it's just hard from where I sit to see how all of this is tying together."
That incomplete vision has created confusion about a private group's efforts to build a homeless center downtown, skepticism about the city's approach to economic development, and in general, division, because everyone doesn't have the same set of facts and isn't working toward the same long-term goals, said Novinger, who's active with the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
Weaver, the Realtor, said the city can no longer feel secure in a local economy based in government jobs. Those jobs are diminishing.
"We need to do better at attracting entrepreneurs," he said.
"We need entrepreneurs here that can build something and have Columbia's reputation be cutting edge ... for something besides government jobs."
Gail Baker, a computer specialist who lives in Hyatt Park off North Main Street, said she wants the city to focus on developing jobs that will bring young people back to Columbia after college.
To this point, the debate about public transit has been about jobs, too, getting people to work if they don't have a car or can't drive.
"The way we define public transportation here is busing," said Barber, the banker, who would love to be able to use his 25-minute commute to work on his laptop.
Ted Speth, 58, who leads the chamber's Good to Great Foundation, notes that Charlotte has embraced a light-rail system.
"That certainly should be something we're talking about," he said. "We've got to get beyond the bus system. There's a broader transportation issue: Our roads, greenways, bike paths."
Also, Mast General Store - with its outdoor clothing and old-timey barrels of candy - is moving to Main Street next year. That has people feeling optimistic about the potential for more retail there.
The Nickelodeon, an art movie house, is restoring an old theater a stone's throw away.
"Suburbs and malls pulled us away from our community, and people are desperately seeking a way to get back to community," Novinger said.
In recent years, city officials have been in the news for paying bills twice, late audits, red ink.
Easley, the neighborhood leader, said part of what's missing now is a sense that the city has set priorities.
Similarly, Robertson, the ad writer, wants assurance that his money is being well-spent and that he can trust his city government.
"I just want to know somebody's in charge," he said. "I want to know that somebody has my back, and is looking out for me as a resident."
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.