By Paul Minnis, The Republic Reporter

EUREKA SPRINGS, ARK. - Columbus won the America in Bloom national contest over the weekend with an "exceptionally high" score that edged its more experienced competitors.

The news, announced in the annual AIB banquet, launched Columbus representatives out of their dining-room chairs and into one another's arms, participants said.

it was the first year Columbus participated in America in Bloom. The city's only competitors in the 25,000 to 50,000 population category - Ocala, Fla., and Bartlett, Tenn. - competed before.

"We're just a step ahead for a small community," Mayor Fred Armstrong said. "It was all about our citizens coming together and getting the job done."

Columbus floral enthusiasts decided to pursue the America in Bloom prize over a year ago, creating a group called Columbus in Bloom.

The group grew from four to about 60 members, developed a beautification plan and asked citizens to participate by volunteering and/or beautifying their homes.

AIB representatives judged the community June 22 and 23 on eight categories.

Each was worth a possible 125 points, for a maximum total of 1,000. Columbus scored 941, Ocala scored 918 and Bartlett scored 877.

"Ours was an exceptionally high score," said Columbus in Bloom member Nick Rush of Columbus Parks and Recreation Department.

"We did our homework, and it paid off for us. We talked to a lot of people to find out how to win."

Rush said group members spoke with previous AIB winners and a judge in a different population category to find out what other judges look for in a community.

He said Columbus over the weekend also was recognized for its community involvement category, in which it scored 122 out of 125 points. On Thursday, the city won among all population competitors for its landscaped areas.

"It was a victory before we ever got the award because of how we pulled together," Armstrong said.

"I think our community just tries a little bit harder and was a little bit better."

Rush said Columbus might bypass the national event next year and concentrate instead on a larger competition involving Canada.

Only national event winners are invited.

"I don't know if we'll do it next year," he said. "We might need some time for preparation.

"If we're going to compete, it's to win."

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