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Think tank gives Columbia top grade in economic performance

Monday, December 9, 2013 | 6:28 p.m. CST; updated 10:42 p.m. CST, Monday, December 9, 2013

COLUMBIA — A recent analysis has ranked Columbia as No. 1 in economic performance among small U.S.  cities.

Conducted by the Milken Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif., the study looked at data such as job growth, wages and the output of the local economy.

Minoli Ratnatunga, an economist who co-authored the report, said Columbia's expanding technology and energy industries, innovative spirit and the presence of a large research university helped the city jump from the 10th place spot it occupied last year to No. 1.

Ratnatunga noted that Columbia far exceeds national levels for higher education, with 48 percent of residents holding a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 29 percent nationally.

Some local business owners said they have found success in the local climate. When Kieran McBride opened Blenders, a downtown smoothie shop, on Aug. 1, he didn't anticipate how quickly his business would grow. Since opening, he has had to hire four more workers to fill extra shifts. He now has 12 employees.

McBride said that help from other Columbia residents was important in getting his business started.

"In Columbia, there's a collective aspect," McBride said. "It's not cutthroat."

Now he wants to pass it on. He strives to put his rising profits back into Columbia by working with groups such as MU Dance Marathon and the Columbia Bike Polo team and by sourcing local products for use in his smoothies.

Kelly Gilion has also found some success since opening her shop, Plume, on Nov. 1. Describing Plume as "a real-life etsy" — referring to a website selling handmade items — Gilion gets the furniture, trinkets and art pieces she sells from 40 local artisans. 

"My shop gives 40 different women the opportunity to earn additional revenue," Gilion said.

Both McBride and Gilion said they use their businesses to reinvest in Columbia.

"Within the community, there seems to be an idea that if one person succeeds, we all succeed," McBride said.

Beyond Meat, a company that makes vegan meat substitute, is an example of a business that resulted from the presence of MU in Columbia. Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown started the company in collaboration with MU, The University of Maryland and several other organizations.

The company opened a production plant with dozens of employees in Columbia in November 2012. It is expected to pump several million into the local economy, according to Regional Economic Development Inc.

Nanova Biomaterials Inc., a biotech company, announced on Nov. 26 that the company would be expanding in Columbia. The company expects to create 50 jobs within five years.

Supervising editor is Richard Webner.


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