Q&A | Making Columbia a Hub for Innovation

Panelists discussing questions

What draws people to a city? What makes people stay? What really makes a city a great place to be?

These questions and others were discussed in the recently renovated City Hall in downtown Columbia on the night of June 8 as a way to bring together the arts, business and technology, and government communities, in collaboration, to make Columbia a better place for innovation.

Hosted by local entrepreneur and community builder Greg Hilton, the panel discussion was part of the SAVVY Musician in Action program, a five-day event meant to build an entrepreneurial mindset in local musicians. 

The event featured three panelists representing the arts, business, and government sectors of Columbia’s community. Director of the Columbia Museum of Art Joelle Ryan-Cook represented the arts; Campus Director of The Iron Yard Columbia and President of SOCO Gene Crawford represented business and technology; and Mayor Steve Benjamin represented local government. 

Greg Hilton opened the evening by stating the primary goal: to explore the role of arts, culture, business, and technology in building a fantastic community.

The panelists then faced the following questions:


What does the ideal creative community look like in your eyes? What does the sector that you represent do for the economy and community?

Joelle Ryan-Cook: I’ve been part of the Columbia community since I was kid, and I’ve been lucky enough to work in the arts. I’ve been at the Columbia Museum of Art for about 20 years now. I really want to see our community own the idea that we are a creative community. I think that is a narrative that can be lost in a growing, midsize, up-and-coming city. I want people to be very proud of who we are. We often say, “You know, [some other city] is great,” but I think we need to own how great our own city has become. 

What would our role as the arts center be? For me it really comes down to education. I really think that no matter what your path is, the arts help create well-rounded, open-minded people who can think critically. So I think arts education can’t be undervalued. It needs to be part of the core of how we bring up the rising generation.

Gene Crawford: I’m a cofounder of SOCO, and then also for the past eight years I’ve been producing an event called ConvergeSC, which is an event specifically for people who work in the software industry and development. We get people from all over the world to come to Columbia. So, when you ask me what our community is and what my dreams are, I think that in 5-10 years I would like to see a more mature community. And we’re making great strides, even in the past three years alone. But what I mean is a community where we have lots of individual entrepreneurs who work in the industry (web development, software development, etc.). Lots of independent people, as well as other businesses that can work together. 

As far as what role we can take, things like ConvergeSC, working with IndieGrits, things like that can bring people together. The business world, software/web development, the arts. I think it’s important to find those opportunities to share what we do with people who aren’t necessarily into it.

Mayor Steve Benjamin: The ideal community looks like a place where people want to live, work, play, prosper, contribute, and grow; where in so many different ways, the arts are valued and invested in; where there’s an entrepreneurial culture; where people want to build and grow; and where people want to do good and do well. As a public servant, I see myself as a constant cheerleader to creating that environment. We should be broad in our vision of who we want to be. People chuckle when I say this, but I sincerely want us to be the most talented, educated, entrepreneurial city in America. In order to do that, we have to have constant, broad, and strategic advocacy. When we face challenges, we have to buck, sometimes buck violently. We have to aggressively invest in building a strong creative culture.


Our city has seen tremendous change in the past five years. What is the one thing that significantly moved the arts forward in Columbia? 

Joelle Ryan-Cook: I would say the revitalization of the downtown, adding the Nickelodeon theater, having the museum. So I think over the last five years, we’re seeing a lot of non-members [of the museum] and bankers walking around downtown, so it’s more of a 24/7 environment. There’s Tapp’s Art Center, and the Boyd Plaza outside of the museum is being used by a number of groups, not just the museum groups. So I like what has been happening on Main Street.

Gene Crawford: I don’t really know what it was, but it seems like the city sort of woke up about five years ago in terms of having places to go and things to do. I guess you could tie it to Main Street having a vibrant city center. 

Mayor Steve Benjamin: That’s pretty much my answer as well. Cities come to life when people want to come back to the urban core. The strategic and long-term vision of investing in your Main Street—doing the little things like restoring old facades that were beautiful 100 years ago, focusing your activities into a world-class arts museum, having a great farmers market—when you do that, you’re creating a sense of place. Every city’s ethos, their idea of whether the city is alive and vibrant, is defined by what is happening on their Main Street. People make a judgment call about your city when they walk up and down your Main Street. That makes it so important that you build a strong urban core. It drives your entire economy.


What is missing here, to encourage arts and culture to thrive in Columbia? 

Joelle Ryan-Cook: We’ve had strong support financially for the arts in Columbia. One of the things I think the arts organizations can do better is convey why they are important so they can diversify the investments in the arts. Small business investments are an important part that the business sector of Columbia can think about. If they want to attract a great workforce, they need to support things that make Columbia a great place. Also, we as individuals can participate in the arts. We need participants to help support by sharing what they love about the arts.

Gene Crawford: We’re missing people. We need more time and more people. Things like One Columbia provide service by creating things that make people want to stay here. We need more things like that. We just need to do more stuff and be consistent with it, so people want to stay here.

Mayor Steve Benjamin: I wish there was one thing. We certainly still need more collaboration. We need a performing arts venue here, which can be a multi-purpose place that a number of different groups can have access to. We need to continue to enhance connectivity. We have several thriving districts, such as with Bull Street on the way, but we need to connect Bull Street to our central business district, and we need to connect the central business district to the Vista and Five Points, and overall find a way to recognize that people want to be connected. People literally want to be connected in a walkable, bike-able community. We have plans to make those things happen. Most importantly, we need a long-term vision for the arts. The artists go into an area and make it nice and new, and get everyone else to come, and then prices go up and it’s hard for the artists to stay. So we need permanent places for artists and entrepreneurs to have an opportunity to remain a part of what is happening in the center of the city.


What does collaboration actually mean? Can you give examples of collaboration in action in Columbia? 

Gene Crawford : So here’s an example: every year we produce an event called Converge. We’ve gone in and out of collaboration with different groups. One year we partnered with Indie Grits, and that was pretty awesome. We didn’t share finances, we just planned to happen on the same weekend. The idea was that anyone can come to Converge, so they attend that during the day and then have something to do in the evenings to enjoy Columbia. We’ve partnered with the Museum before, as well, and that was very memorable. There are lots of opportunities. Stuff like that is really cool because it brings our communities together.

Joelle Ryan-Cook: At the museum, we’re lucky to have a really great facility that is supported by the city. We feel responsible to share that. So tonight we had Trustus theater using our loft space to rehearse for a play that they’re doing and hosting at the museum for the next two weeks, and we’re giving tours on the theme of that play. We’ve done a lot of versions of that over the years and it’s very exciting. When we can be a resource, we want to do that. That’s where you learn a lot about who your community is. It’s very easy to just focus on your own day-to-day affairs, but collaboration allows you to open your mind. It’s not easy to do. It’s easier to just work with your own staff. But it’s very rewarding to do. These programs become the community’s programs.

Mayor Steve Benjamin: Collaboration is so important. We have a finite amount of resources, so any efforts that we can have to partner, in terms of resources and strategic partnerships that help us build, is amazing. I do love the fact that we all work together, especially outside of the typical groups that we tend to attract. 


What are some things that other cities have or are doing that would be good to have here? 

Gene Crawford: I would actually like to turn that question around. My job allows me to produce events all over the country, and I think Columbia stacks up very well against other cities. We do events as close to the city core as we can. The Iron Yard itself is located in the city core. I’ve been to some pretty cool cities, and we have some weird and cool stuff here, too.

Mayor Steve Benjamin: I’ve been to some of the largest cities in the country and around the world, and I would really like to see more creative spaces available for artists. I would love to see some space dedicated to entrepreneurs and artists. 

Joelle Ryan-Cook: As someone who has spent pretty much my whole life here, I used to travel, thinking like I couldn’t wait to go to the city because they have something that we don’t have, but I don’t feel that way any more. Maybe it’s just my age. But I feel that Columbia has come so far. When I hear somebody from Columbia say there’s nothing to do here, I’m like what are you paying attention to? Because I have to choose between twelve things this weekend! So I just feel like I want to concentrate on the fact that this city is a progressive city and has a lot to offer. We need to own that. We, as the community, need to support and understand and believe that. Columbia is a very different city from what it used to be, and I’m proud to be here.

Gene Crawford: It’s interesting, in the tech community I see a couple patterns that come up everywhere I go. You tend to skew towards the cities where they know they’re cool and they’re loving it, or there are the cities where they hate where they are and they can’t wait to get out. We need to love where we are and what we do. We need some swagger. 


When the audience asked the panelists for advice for individual artists and organizations, all three agreed on one point: get involved.

The city is full of positions that need motivated workers. Mayor Benjamin strongly suggested artists and business people serve on boards and commissions or help out with a nonprofit. Having a role in the future of the city is the most powerful way to create an environment more conducive to innovation.

Finally, panelists urged artists to take the initiative to be their own advocates. They asked what people have done to communicate with the community. 

“It’s not necessarily true that if you build it they will come,” said Joelle. “There’s a lot of noise out there, so invest in getting the word out about what you’re doing."

Underlying all the discussions during this time was the message that Columbia will grow when its residents believe in it. Those who live in the city need to invest in it and consistently work to make it an innovative and vital community. When people are proud of where they live and share that pride with others, interest grows, people come, the community invests, and the city thrives.