COLUMBIANA, Ohio -- The thing about a city earning a title such as the "nicest place in America" is that outsiders often assume the people who live there don't have to work at being nice.
Well, anyone in this lovely city that straddles both the Mahoning and Columbiana Counties would say you do have to work at it. But like anything worthwhile in this world (including warmth, generosity, common courtesy and the selfless notion of paying it forward), it starts to come more easily with time.
It also helps that Columbiana has a deep sense of community, which means it is deeply committed to its success. People here are involved in the church, civic groups and the general betterment of the city.
It's not because it is a small city or because it oozes the type of charm Hallmark aims to capture in its Christmas movies. It's because everyone in town has a hand, large or small, in the community's health and well-being.
Spend less than five minutes with City Manager Lance Willard and you'll know exactly what I mean. Just before the annual Christmas parade, ask for his rundown on why his city earned the status of "nicest place" from Reader's Digest, and you'll get a pretty vivid picture.
Spend an additional five minutes with Willard and you'll find out why this city of 6,200 is prospering economically, growing in population and expanding its charming Main Street with innovative retail opportunities such as pop-ups and shared retail spaces. Its success has attracted the attention of nearby Rust Belt towns looking to replicate.
"I've had other communities call us -- Salem, Lisbon, East Liverpool, Leetonia, Warren, Zanesville -- and they're saying, 'Hey, what are you guys doing up there?'" Willard said of the string of neighboring cities and towns looking for guidance on economic development including how to procure grants for new infrastructure and attract small businesses.
His answer? "I just send them a zip file of what we've been doing."
None of Columbiana's success has come at the expense of the soul of the city -- it has only made it nicer.
"If I could point to one place that embodies who the people of Columbiana are, I would point to Crown Productions at the Main Street Theater, where they showcase theater productions that feature only actors w