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March 4, 2021
Authentic: Mayor Steve Benjamin
Communities are defined by their small businesses. Indeed, the experiences that our local companies allow us to share, from food to arts and culture, are the cornerstones of the City of Columbia for residents and visitors alike. At a time when multinational corporations double in profit as a result of an exponential increase in online sales, Mayor Steve Benjamin reminds us of why it’s so vital to support both new and older small businesses that have been a part of Columbia’s history and character for decades, if not over a century.
“Some multinational companies are truly amazing, but they don’t define the character of a community anywhere close to the way a small local business does,” says Mayor Benjamin. “And even more importantly, small businesses add that flavor, that spunk, the character to who Columbia is. I think they are an essential part of defining who we are.”
Mayor Benjamin understands that it’s difficult to champion the cause of supporting local without raising awareness of both the effects of the pandemic on small businesses and the crucial role that they play in Columbia’s ecosystem.
“The vast majority of our citizens are employed in small businesses,” Mayor Benjamin explains. “And I will tell you, I am bothered by the idea that we might be losing so much of our talent to other places across the country. I want to at least do my part to continue building a city and a true community where both young and senior professionals can succeed.”
Under the Mayor’s leadership, the City of Columbia acted early in support of our local businesses and nonprofits in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak. In March, they passed our very first Resilient Columbia sustainability plan, which quickly injected a million and a half dollars into the local economy. Such early initiatives supported over three hundred small businesses very quickly, getting money out the door into the hands of small-business owners, as well as forgivable loans to help them make it through the earliest and most difficult parts of the pandemic, when shutdowns were very common throughout the country.
A year after the beginning of the first coronavirus lockdown, the Mayor continues to ensure that our small businesses have the ability to operate, the capital to pay their employees uninterruptedly, and some flexibility with loans and restrictions that may otherwise not have been the order of the day, all without losing sight of his long-term goals for Columbia. “It sounds rather cliché, especially for an elected official to say it, but at our core, we want to be a clean city. A safe city. A city where people want to live, work, play, and prosper,” states Mayor Benjamin. “We hope to have a city that continues to develop responsibly and equitably in all of the ways that we want to see. And I believe that means that we have to continue to selfishly invest in our small-business capital.”
The ongoing health and economic crisis hasn’t been the first major challenge of Mayor Benjamin’s political career. In fact, he was first elected to serve the people of Columbia at the end of the Great Recession, when he was in charge of making some very difficult decisions to help the community fully bounce back from one of the worst chapters of its then recent history. Ten years later, his administration hasn’t been anything short of transformational for our city.
“We have been able to balance our books and finish eight of the last ten years of the budget in surplus. We have made unprecedented investments not only in infrastructure and public safety, but also in arts and culture. In fact, we have been able to redefine our creative culture and class here. Most importantly, we have used every single opportunity that we’ve had to speak to the strength of diversity and inclusion, especially against the winds of intolerance and divisiveness that we’ve seen across the country.”
Besides major infrastructure revitalizations and improvements for several social and professional groups, Mayor Benjamin’s greatest career achievement has been helping to establish Columbia as one of the most talented, educated, and entrepreneurial cities of the New South. “More and more people, both internally and externally, are starting to realize exactly how special this city is, like I did when I first got here, as a 17-year-old student, wet behind the ears, freshman at the University of South Carolina. I think that’s probably been the most significant psychological, mental, and emotional achievement over the last 10 years,” he explains. “There are so many great things, but I do believe that just having reasons to continue believing that this place is special, that we are the State’s capital, that we are the heart and soul of South Carolina and represent its strength and its diversity, is probably our greatest achievement.”
Although small-business owners continue to look towards an uncertain future, the Mayor believes that we still hold the power to step up and support them together as a true community. “The reality is that, if you do it right, you can indeed support small businesses,” Mayor Benjamin adds. “You can save money while doing it, and you can also play an incredible role in helping many of our businesses survive through what’s been one of the greatest challenges they’ve ever seen.” As a self-proclaimed optmist, he also believes that our best days are ahead of us: “We will make sure that we work together to build a city that our younger generations can continue to be proud of and excited about. A place they can trumpet to their friends wherever they go off to, and when they are able to make their own choices, Columbia will at least be one of the top options for them.”
When it comes to supporting small and saving local, Mayor Benjamin leads by example. He and his family love to head to Cakes LaMo’r and NoMa By Al Amir on North Main Street to fulfill their carb cravings. As pescatarians, they also love eating at seafood stalwarts like Blue Marlin. The most exciting thing they do on weekends? Hanging out at Soda City on Main Street and seeing the wonderful diversity of food options available right here in the heart of Columbia. Wherever he leads, we will follow.