Columbia Fest celebrates small town makeover

Columbia may be a small town with a population of less than 160 residents, but it has seen some big changes in the last year. That’s thanks to the generous donations of both current and former residents.

For those who haven’t been through the town just northeast of Aberdeen recently, new features constructed this year include a park with a basketball court, a pickle ball court, walking baths, disc golf baskets, picnic tables and playground sets.

A major highlight that is new to Columbia is a new ballpark, which was very much needed as the former field was flooded by the James River.

”We’ve been able to take a ballpark that’s been underwater for six years and move it to higher ground and build a spectacular ball field,” said Julie Lillis, who sits on the Columbia Social Opportunities Committee.

The lodge in Columbia was also renovated over the winter and is now Karen’s Bar and Grill.

The major additions that add a recreational aspect to the small town were largely funded by Dean Buntrock, a former resident of Columbia who founded Waste Management, Inc., North America’s largest waste services company.

Lillis said the total cost of the projects were in the millions, and other community members and donors pitched in to help as well.

On Saturday, Columbia will be celebrating its second annual Columbia Fest. The first Columbia Fest was held in 2022 while the projects were under construction.

”This started last year because Dean Buntrock, the benefactor, he was kind of tearing up the town with all the new work that was going on and he said, ‘I need to give the community something that reminds them this is all for the good.’ So, he threw a big party. He paid for the entire thing,” said Lillis.

Now, the community has positioned itself to be able to fund Columbia Fest every year on the last Saturday of July.

”In this process, we also created the Columbia Community Foundation. He gave us a nest egg to build that and since then, we’ve probably quadrupled the amount of money that we’ve put in. That’s all local business, local people and families from the area,” said Lillis.

Some new events have also been added to the Columbia Fest schedule.

”We’re starting the day off at 10 o’clock with a parade. We haven’t had a parade for 19 years. Vendors will be set up from 10 to 3. We have 17+ vendors. We have about three food vendors,” said Columbia resident Sadie Hanna.

Other events include a home run derby on the new field, duck races in the James River, concerts and karaoke in the bar.

Lillils said she’s already seen community members take advantage of the new additions in Columbia, and it serves as an example that small towns can continue to thrive.

”I think it’s just that spirit has taken over Columbia. We’re all excited about what’s happening. It shows growth instead of a decay in a very small town. More than anything, it’s bumped up community pride tremendously,” said Lillis.

View the story on Dakota News Now.