Columbia ranked No. 3 among top U.S. college towns

USC baseball fan Hayden Dale is all smiles as he plays corn hole while tailgating before the Gamecock playoff game against Georgia Southern at Carolina Stadium.
USC baseball fan Hayden Dale is all smiles as he plays corn hole while tailgating before the Gamecock playoff game against Georgia Southern at Carolina Stadium. File photo

Columbia is the third-best college town in the United States, according to an annual list released Thursday.

Columbia logged in behind No. 2 Irvine, Calif., home of the University of California-Irvine, and No. 1 Tempe, Ariz., home of Arizona State University, in the Livability.com ranking.

Livability.com said South Carolina’s capital city blends beautifully the old and the new with a solid base of young people, particularly students, young professionals and soldiers.

“Columbia’s past, present and future are deeply tied to a collection of colleges and universities, including the state’s flagship school, the University of South Carolina,” the website said. “Longtime residents experience a vibrant social scene, evolving arts atmosphere and stable economy thanks in large part to a steady stream of college students, many of whom decide to stay after graduation. Off campus, students find a city filled with cultural attractions, great restaurants and things to explore.”

It wasn’t always so, said Matt Kennell, chief executive of City Center Partnership, which encourages and guides investment in the central business district. It has taken nearly three decades of concentrated effort to revitalize Columbia’s once dreary downtown, said Kennell, who has helped shepherd revitalization of the Capital City’s Main Street.

“Between Main Street, the Vista and Five Points, there are now more than 200 restaurants that are attractive to students and other young people,” he said.

There’s also the availability of outdoor recreation on the city’s three urban rivers, a growing craft beer and distilling scene, a wide range of housing options and affordability, and lots of sports, including the new Columbia Fireflies minor league baseball team, which plays in the new, state-of-the-art Spirit Communications Park.

Columbia scored for its more than half-dozen colleges and universities — the largest being the University of South Carolina — that boast a total of almost 50,000 students. The ranking also took into account an educated population; the number of 25- to 29-year-olds as an indicator of the town’s ability to retain graduates; availability and affordability of housing; and athletic programs.

Dan Hannum, a recent USC graduate, said he wanted to stay in Columbia rather than move back to northern Virginia in large part because of the city’s affordability and growing entertainment districts.

“It cost a fifth of what it would cost to live up there,” said Hannum, who now works for TD Ameritrade and recently moved into the Station at Five Points, a new apartment complex near Five Points geared toward students and young professionals.

The survey also touted Columbia’s museums — citing the Columbia Museum of Art and the State Museum — and its “youthful feel” because of Fort Jackson. The city — home to Fort Jackson, the Army’s largest basic training base — is known as one of the most military friendly in the nation.

Rounding out the top 10 were Cambridge, Mass., home to Harvard University and MIT; Ann Arbor, Mich., home to the University of Michigan; Tallahassee, Fla., home to Forida State and Florida A&M University; Fairfax, Va., home to George Mason University; Greensboro, N.C., home to UNC-Greensboro and N.C. A&T; Denton, Texas, home to North Texas University; and Provo, Utah, home to Brigham Young.