Ohio City, Crowned 'Nicest Place in America,' Gives Residents with Special Needs the Chance to Be Stars

The Reader's Digest contest gave the title to an Ohio city, known for a local theater that puts on productions starring special needs actors

Reader's Digest
Photo: Peter Larson

The nicest place in America is a small Midwest town with a thriving park, generous residents and a local theater that gives people with special needs the chance to be stars.

Reader’s Digest has crowned Columbiana, Ohio, the winner of its third annual “Nicest Places in America” contest, meaning it bested more than 1,000 other places submitted by readers.

The magazine said its goal in launching the effort was to “uncover places where people are kind and treat each other with respect” ⁠— and that’s just what they found in Columbiana.

“At a time when some Americans are questioning their trust in each other, Columbiana has the answer: Nobody will ever get left behind,” Editor-in-Chief Bruce Kelley said in a statement. “This town is growing and changing, but everyone is welcome to be a part of it. This is truly one of the nicest places we’ve ever written about. Giving back without wanting anything in return is a way of life in Columbiana. We hope it will shine as an example for communities all across this great country.”

The town, which has a population of 6,200, was nominated by Mary Lou Wilson, whose 36-year-old grandson participates in plays at the Main Street Theater.

Reader's Digest
Peter Larson

“He’s a great guy and a great-grandson, but he has some disabilities,” Wilson told Reader’s Digest. “After the play ⁠— it was pure, unadulterated joy. These kids change. And I saw the change in my grandson.”

The theater is the centerpiece of the town, and was revamped in 2007 after sitting abandoned for years. Thanks to a collaboration with Crown Theater Productions, a nonprofit theater company, it puts on several plays each year, two of which use only actors with special needs.

Reader's Digest
Ryan Houck, an actor at the Main Street Theater. Peter Larson

Meanwhile, other highlights from the town, that sits between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, include a bakery owner who donates goodies to local fundraisers, brewery owners who donate their tips to different charities, and a woman who used a portion of her retirement money to help rebuild Firestone Park, a beloved local green space.

“A certain morale, an ethic, is instilled in everyone here from a young age,” Mayor Bryan Blakeman told Reader’s Digest. “It’s a pay-it-forward mentality.”

Columbiana was one of 50 finalists to make the cut.

Reader’s Digest made the trip out to Ohio on Thursday night to surprise residents with news of their win at — where else? — the Main Street Theater.

The remaining 50 places were announced in June after having been selected by editors and a panel of judges.

Other special places in the U.S. that were highlighted include the Fugees Academy in Clarkston, Georgia, a private school for refugees, and Pembroke, New Hampshire, whose residents raised $20,000 for a local family after their home was lost in a fire.

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