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Trends promising for Mitchell tourism

Arlene Roth, with the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce, works the visitor information booth inside the lobby at the Corn Palace on Wednesday in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Optimism is in the DNA of Mitchell tourism officials, and early trends show promise for a good summer season for the Corn Palace and other local sites.

Marketing campaigns for South Dakota as a whole appear to be successful, while experts say rising gas prices will deter airline traffic more than highway travel.

And locally, the effect of Burr Street reconstruction on tourism last summer provides little cause to fear projects on Burr and Sanborn this year.

"We saw a little bit of what construction could do potentially last year," said Scott Schmidt, Corn Palace director. "It's not too big of a deterrent. It probably wreaks more havoc on local traffic."

According to last year's visitor counts, three times as many people enter the Corn Palace between May and October compared with the winter months. July was last year's biggest month, with 84,625 visits. The 12-month count from May 4, 2017, to May 1 of this year totaled 415,517 visitors.

Friday completes the first year of a new kind of counting, so it can't be equitably compared with that of previous years.

The Corn Palace is Mitchell's obvious tourism draw, but visitors also come for the Prehistoric Indian Village, the Carnegie Resource Library, and city hiking trails, among other attractions, said Katie Knutson, director of the Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Now that reconstruction of Burr Street is primarily south of Interstate 90, Knutson said, "I think it will be fine this year. It didn't hurt us incredibly on numbers last year. With both Sanborn and Burr, we'll have to see. We're going to stay positive."

Rising fuel costs have also created few worries.

"We don't notice that gas pricing is any big factor in a family vacation," Knutson said.

Mitchell's summer tourists typically drive here from Iowa, Minnesota or Wisconsin en route to the Black Hills.

"We're also seeing quite a few through Kansas," Knutson said.

Families typically begin researching their stops in February, so most already have decided whether or not to visit Mitchell.

Knutson said the response to recent state Department of Tourism marketing indicates that this year a greater number of families considered Mitchell's interstate exits. Visits to the state tourism website are up, she said. Requests for the South Dakota Vacation Guide are up 104 percent. Visits to Mitchell's tourism website are up 16 percent from last year.

Mitchell's two visitors centers are currently open and staffed, Knutson noted. One is located along I-90 and the other in the Corn Palace lobby.

Those who visit the Corn Palace this summer may also stay longer with the recent completion of the Corn Palace Plaza.

"They'll be more comfortable there," Knutson said.

"The plaza gives it more of a homey feeling," Schmidt added.

New numbers

Saturday begins the second year of the new visitor counting system at the Corn Palace, and officials are excited to begin comparing results.

"This will be the year we'll be able to put numbers down," Knutson said.

In place of turnstiles, electronic counters are located inside lobby doors. They can track everyone who enters without counting those who exit.

Some people may enter twice, but the system doesn't count people entering through the back doors, so it's a bit of a wash.

Optimism always abounds in spring, and Schmidt was able to spin even April's weather as a potential tourism boon.

"With the length of our winter this year, a lot of people are ready to get out of the house," Schmidt said. "There might be a lot more people from Sioux Falls."

The Corn Palace Events & Entertainment Board received other good news at a meeting Tuesday.

April's Hairball concert netted $17,277 this year on gross revenue of $67,441. Net profit was roughly double that of the Hairball concert from a year earlier. Ticket sales were up from last year's event, which was held on a Friday rather than a Saturday, and a change in wholesale beer expenses aided profitability.

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