When looking for ambassadors for Columbia, the city’s destination marketing organization found it did not have to work hard to convince recruits to come on board.
"They did not have to convince me because I love Columbia," said Ashley Jenkins, senior executive assistant to the city manager and one of the members of the Local Ambassador Program for Experience Columbia SC.
The Experience Columbia SC website says people should “Think of us as the biggest cheerleaders for the heart of South Carolina.” They looked for ambassadors who would naturally fill that role, and Jenkins fit like a glove.
"Columbia is a little underrated," said Jenkins. Born in Maryland but having moved here in middle school, she considers herself a Columbia native, and said its ability to become home is one of the Capital City’s best qualities.
"There's a sense of ease and a sense of family and a sense of home people and businesses feel in Columbia,” she said. "Everywhere you look there's so much growth. We are no longer that city where there's 'nothing to do.'"
According to Jenkins, the evolution of the city especially over the last decade has been remarkable.
"I remember Main Street and the Vista 10 years ago and I’ve seen the evolution since then. Walking on Main Street is totally different than when I graduated from UofSC,” she said. "We are a destination. We're growing. We're grown. And we keep getting better every year.”
In addition to working for the city, Jenkins has a social media presence focusing on life in Columbia. Her first project when interning for the city focused on the potential of revitalizing Main Street, something she has watched come to fruition. She credited the city’s leaders including the mayor, city council, and city manager for leading the way with a strategic plan and commitment to action, not just talk. She also said the city’s size is an advantage.
"It feels like home because the people, the leadership, the business leaders, everyone is accessible. You don't have to go through a lot of hoops to find out how to get involved,” she said. "It's a place where your voice can be heard and your voice matters."
Jenkins noted that feeling of home is also present because of the diversity in Columbia in terms of race, sexual orientation, background and everything else.
"I hear people calling it a melting pot, but I think, and I'm being extra, it's really like this perfectly crafted soup or homemade stew. It's just the right amount of everything,” she said. "It's really about representation. I feel like Columbia has a great mix of that."
Jenkins said that the evolution in recent years is likely to be a pleasant surprise for those who once lived in Columbia but have been away for a while.
"Welcome back to Main Street If you haven't been home for a while to Columbia, SC, you need to come!” She added that Columbia is also a perfect spot for newcomers to find the welcome they’re looking for, and her message to them came from the heart.
"Everyone finds their place in Columbia. Just come on home.”