Article featured on Keystone Edge.

Columbia, Lancaster County, is a town nestled along the mighty Susquehanna River. Walk through downtown towards the water and you’ll pass historic brick buildings, vintage storefronts and Victorian homes. You’ll see thriving antique markets, a brewpub, a world-renowned museum and a stately market hall.

Once you reach the Susquehanna, look right to see the borough’s new crown jewel: The Columbia Crossing River Trails Center. Spread out a picnic and watch kayakers drift by from its massive shaded deck. Launch your boat from the adjacent park or rent a bike from the on-site outfitter. Inside, check out a rotating slate of exhibits highlighting local history and culture. When you’re done, take a stroll along the recently opened Northwest Lancaster County River Trail, a 14-mile-long recreational path that stretches north past Marietta to Falmouth.

So Columbia has the stunning natural setting. It has the recreational assets. It has a passionate small-business community. It has access to the 10 million people that visit Lancaster annually. And it has an energy building across the county, a buzz about beer, restaurants, arts, entertainment and startups. Now the goal is for Columbia is to get a piece of that pie — to draw people here to spend, to play, to eat, to live and to work. It’s a big job, but one that a host of local residents and organizations are taking on.

Coming Attractions

Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC) President Keith Lutz was born and raised in Columbia. He owns the Kleen-Rite Corporation, a wholesale distributor of car wash supplies. The company employs 85 people, many who live in town.

“Columbia is a beautiful town,” says Lutz. “It’s easy to get around by foot, so that intrigues a lot of people. Over the last decade, I’d say that the antique and arts community has become very vibrant. If that piques your interest, our town is a must-do stop if you’re visiting central Pennsylvania.”

The CEDC was formed in 2005. One of their first big projects was helping develop the Turkey Hill Experience, a family-friendly attraction at the ice cream factory where visitors can design their own flavor, milk a mechanical cow, and learn about how the company’s products are made. It brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to Columbia every year.

But when people come to check out Turkey Hill, to kayak on the river or to ride the new trail, there should be amenities that keep them — and their dollars — in town for a few more hours.

One of the most exciting recent developments was the opening of Columbia Kettle Works, a brewpub run by Bill Collister and Rod Smith. It’s an excellent place to grab a flight of interesting beers alongside locally-sourced snacks and sandwiches.

“We looked all around for a place to start a brewery,” recalls Collister. “We had been giving a location in Lancaster City serious consideration but continued to look. We came across a couple of buildings in Columbia for rent by David Doolittle. He was very persistent and wanted us in Columbia, thinking it would help the community. He offered us a lease that was hard to not consider.”

Collister and Smith opened the business three-and-a-half-years ago, and purchased the building last year.

“We have many locals that frequent the pub weekly,” says Collister. “We have people coming to us from Lancaster, York, Harrisburg, Reading and all the smaller surrounding communities. Many people come to Columbia for antiques, the National Watch & Clock Museum, the river and the Turkey Hill Experience, and then end up at our place for refreshments.”

Thanks to sterling Yelp reviews and a rabid online community of beer enthusiasts, getting the word out has been easier than expected.

“We rely on word of mouth and Facebook to contact people about upcoming beer releases and events,” he explains. “As far as finding us, when in the area or prior to arriving, most people pull out a smart phone, tablet or laptop, and search the area for places to eat and things to do.”

The opening of the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail has already started paying dividends for the brewpub.

“When [the trail] opened, we installed two bike racks out front,” says Collister. “Not long after we added two more, plus we allow bikes to park inside. We also meet many hikers, joggers and walkers.”

Columbia Kettle Works is planning to open a tasting room in downtown Lancaster City. That increased visibility should help lure discerning drinkers to their flagship in Columbia.

Tourists can pass time in a brewpub, or they can ponder time at the National Watch & Clock Museum. The institution opened to the public in 1977 with fewer than 1,000 items. Currently, the collection features over 13,000 items — the largest horological library in the world. The latest museum expansion occurred in 1999 and featured an entirely redesigned exhibit space, as well as a two-story addition. 

“We draw visitors from all over the world and expose them to the beauty and diversity of not just Columbia, but of the entire region,” says Museum Director Noel Poirier.

The Museum has recently seen a dramatic increase in the number of families that visit— they now make up almost a quarter of monthly visitors. 

“There’s no question that the further development of the river trail, along with continued development of the downtown area of Columbia will continue to draw visitors in greater numbers,” says Poirier. “I would love to see the further development of the downtown area as a pedestrian-friendly shopping and dining destination.”

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