Southern Living, a nationally acclaimed lifestyle and tourism magazine, has named the City of Aiken its No. 1 small town for 2018.
"This town is a picture postcard waiting to happen, from the iconic archway of live oaks along South Boundary Avenue and serene Hopelands Gardens to the strong thoroughbreds you might see warming up in the early-morning light," the magazine's look at the city reads.
Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon unveiled the magazine cover, which solely features South Boundary Avenue and its lolling oaks, at a Tuesday morning conference.
Physical copies of the magazine will be available March 23, according to City spokespeople.
In a speech onstage, Osbon said Aiken is worthy of praise because of its people and its places.
"Maybe it's the Training Track on a Saturday morning as the fog is rising up, and you see those first horses out there running," Osbon said to a crowd that had assembled at the Municipal Building. "Maybe it's the Boundary oaks that we have that are so picturesque and certainly represent our city. Or maybe it's the charm and character of our downtown that we all treasure so much."
"Those are just a few of the things that make Aiken special," he continued.
Southern Living's written exploration of the city stresses the community's equestrian roots, its sprinklings of wilderness – think Hitchcock Woods – and its "variety of eclectic eateries, galleries, and shops, often tucked behind storefronts" near and along Laurens Street.
The magazine has previously written about Aiken and its horse-driven, boutique flair.
The magazine warns potential Aiken tourists of the city's seemingly magnetic quality: "One word of caution: Some of Aiken’s visitors have been known to come for the weekend and never leave, so you shouldn’t pack light."
In introducing the rankings, Southern Living stated most winners "haven’t bulldozed their past," but have, instead, reimagined it and built off of it. City leaders have often been the first to say growth is good, but only if it stays true to historical character.
"It's funny when I go to these conferences, and I talk about dirt roads in the center of our town," Osbon said, hinting at the horse district and places like Grace Avenue, "and they say, 'Can't you get them repaved?' And I say, 'Not if you ever want to get elected again.'"
Osbon, who stood with Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce President and CEO J. David Jameson and several City Council members, said the recognition feels like a "little pat that says, 'Hey, you're on the right path, you're doing great.'"
Rebecca Waddell, the City's tourism supervisor, agreed with the mayor.
"I think this means progress," she said of the No. 1 spot. "We're not at this finishing point. …But it's a celebration of how far we've come."
In a post-announcement email blast, Jameson said the city's gold medal is a "great" nod "for Aiken and our region."
Osbon said Southern Living's acknowledgement will have a significant economic impact – he expects "a lot of other people" to visit in the coming months.
Fairhope, Alabama placed second on Southern Living's list. Oxford, Mississippi placed third, and Southport, North Carolina finished fourth.
Aiken was also voted the South's friendliest town for 2018, according to Southern Living.
The lifestyle and tourism magazine publishes lists like this annually.
Rankings are decided by readers of the magazine.