Mayor of Columbia, SC compares his city and Knoxville during Friday luncheon event

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Stephen Benjamin, Mayor of Columbia, SC, was in town on Friday to deliver the keynote address at the 2021 “Mayors’ Leadership Luncheon” organized by Leadership Knoxville.

Several hundred people gathered under a large tent on the World’s Fair site to hear the 36th Mayor of the Palmetto State’s Capital City and its first African American chief executive who took office in 2010.

Drawing some parallels between Knoxville and Columbia such as redevelopment of a blighted area anchored by a baseball stadium, Benjamin said his mission is to make Columbia the most talented, educated and entrepreneurial community in America.

“A city is meant to be a platform for human potential,” he told the audience. Noting the many ways that COVID-19 has impacted communities, Benjamin said that “it took amazing leaders to bring us through it. Last year served as a great Xray of American society . . . and exposed some of our broken bones.”

The Mayor also drew on the local tragedy of five Austin-East Magnet High School students being killed in a matter of a few months and the larger national discord to urge more tolerance and what he called “pragmatic policymaking that is escaping America right now. We’ve got to work together.”

Benjamin heralded The BullStreet District in Columbia as an example of bringing the public and private sector together. The 181-acre site was home to an abandoned mental institution, but it is now described as the largest city-center development east of the Mississippi River. Literally one mile from the University of South Carolina campus, the BullStreet District is promoted as “a community where tech-driven entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 companies, culinary artists and more come together to work, play, and create alongside one of the nation’s most buzzworthy Minor League Baseball teams.”

Does that vision sound familiar?

Ahead of the Mayor’s speech, Leadership Knoxville presented its “Distinguished Alumnus Award” to Reverend Harold Middlebrook, the well-known leader in the faith community and a friend of the late Martin Luther King. Middlebrook gave a rousing, emotional and powerful acceptance speech.

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