LAKE CITY, S.C. – Once known for its tobacco markets with rows of cured tobacco lining the warehouse floors in the summertime and the voices of auctioneers humming throughout, Lake City is the hometown of NASA astronaut Ronald McNair and ArtFields.
This summer the small Florence County town added another identity – one of the “Top 10 Nicest Places in America for 2021,” as chosen by Reader’s Digest.
“We’re very honored and excited to be named in the top 10,” said Roberta Burns, Lake City ArtFields collective marketing manager, who submitted the nomination. The voting for the top Nicest Place in America has ended, Burns said, and the winner should be notified no later than mid-September. The winner will be featured on the November cover of Reader’s Digest.
“I nominated Lake City and from all the nominations we were selected as one of the top ten,” Burns said.
Burns said each year for the past five years, Reader’s Digest has had an open nomination period when folks can submit materials for a place “where people are kind, resilient, and work to make their communities better.”
When she read the criteria, Burns said, she thought of her new home. She moved to Lake City about four years ago to take a job with Moore Farms Botanical Garden.
“It felt like home from the moment I moved here,” she said. “It was very powerful and very quickly felt like home.”
Burns said Lake City is like many small Southern towns where everyone knows everyone, neighbors help neighbors, but unlike any other small town, Lake City is host each spring to ArtFields, when the entire downtown becomes an art gallery for nine days.
One of the reasons stated for its inclusion on the list was ArtFields and how it brings the townspeople together while reaching out to welcome visitors.
Since 2013, hundreds of Southeastern artists have submitted their artwork for the juried art competition, and each spring people come from all over the country to view the different types of art, along works by local students in the area.
“Lake City, simply put, is a family,” Burns wrote in her nomination. “When you come to visit, whether for a day, a week, or a month, you leave as part of the family. Business owners eagerly greet you and tell you about everything happening in Lake City. People on the streets wave hello.”
Her sentiments are echoed by many in the town.
Mayor Lovith Anderson Jr. said that in his travels “good morning, good afternoon, have a great day and hello go a long way.”
Merry Floyd, a business owner in downtown Lake City, said that in the springtime things in this town come to life with ArtFields. She is owner of a’bloom, a florist shop on Sauls Street.
“People come here and everyone shows their Southern hospitality,” Floyd said. “I am a native, and I love that everyone knows everyone. It feels like a family. It is that family feeling that makes it so special.”
Jennifer Coker said, “Everybody knows everybody, and if we need anything, someone will be there to help.”
Coker said Lake City is a beautiful town with its green spaces, tree-lined streets, a new park and outdoor art.
April Matthews, owner of The Fruit Stand in Lake City, said everyone is kind to each other.
“We are a family,” she said.
Like other small towns, Lake City has its faults, its empty store fronts, and its challenges, but it is constantly striving to improve, to be inclusive and welcoming to everyone, Burns said.
Daniel Pinckney, owner of Top Notch Boutique in downtown Lake City and a winner of Lake City’s Launchpad Business Competition, said the town is growing. He and his co-owner opened the boutique a year ago.
“A lot of things are opening here; ArtFields brings a lot of people here,” Pinckney said.
Pinckney said he is a native of Lake City and came back after college wanting to open a business. He said Lake City is a town with great Southern people. Even during COVID, he said, people had to be flexible and adapt to change.
For a town of about 6,500 people, Lake City has a lot to offer.
Lake City has the Bean Market, The ROB, the Jones-Carter Gallery, TRAX Visual Arts Center that come alive with art during ArtFields and other times of the year. It has Moore Farms Botanical Garden, which hosts event throughout the year and provides educational tours for school children.
In her nomination, Burns told about the many activities that bring out locals and outsiders in Lake City. They include Moore Farms Botanical Garden Open Days and Wine Stroll, when thousands are raised for local charities, ArtFields; May Day, a local plant sale; the Dramatic Coffee Beans Showcase, which is a youth enrichment group aimed at helping teens tackle tough situations through drama and performance; Games on the Green, an annual outdoor event; the MFBG Beer Fest at Moore Farms Botanical Garden with proceeds donated to the Florence County Disabilities Foundation; a citywide trick or treating event down Main Street; and the year ends with Hometown Holidays, another townwide event complete with a tree decorating contest, letters to Santa, an ice rink, and more.
“It’s not only during these events, but also during a normal day in Lake City that you find a helping hand, a ready smile, and an impactful conversation,” Burns wrote in her nomination. “Our people and the love they show everyone truly mark Lake City as the nicest city … Lake City is nice for no reason and every reason.”