Council budgets $13.9 million in project fundsCorn Palace, City Hall relocation, second ice sheet, library earmarked for funding
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
After months of talk and study, the Mitchell City Council has started making decisions on what major city projects will move ahead.
During the third and final night of budget hearings and its regular meeting Monday night, the council voted to invest $6.5 million in the Corn Palace, $2.6 million in building a new City Hall downtown, $2.5 million in a second sheet of ice at the Mitchell Activities Center and $2.3 million for an upgrade of the Mitchell Public Library.
The Corn Palace project passed 5-3, with Councilmen Dan Allen, Greg McCurry, Phil Carlson, Marty Barington and Mel Olson voting for it and Council President Jeff Smith and Councilmen Councilmen Randy Doescher and Steve Rice voting against it.
The City Hall, MAC and library decisions were unanimous.
An expansion of the Recreation Center, including a new, larger indoor pool, was put on the back burner as Parks and Recreation Director Dusty Rodiek said he will continue to look for private partners to team with the city on such a project.
Finance Officer Marilyn Wilson was directed to come up with a plan to pay for the projects, but most of the money will come from bonds.
The council added $650,000 to the community projects fund, bringing it to $2,383,000, with an additional $850,000 in debt service. A business improvement district might be created as well, which would allow businesses to voluntarily tax themselves for the benefit of a project.
The council said it hopes some of the money it will spend will be paid back in donations to these projects.
Smith said the council needed to make a decision on these projects now for several reasons, including fiscal ones.
“ Municipal interest rates right now are at an all-time low,” he said.
The debate over the Corn Palace took up most of the budget discussion, which took nearly four hours.
“ I ’ m pleased they decided to invest in the Corn Palace, ” said Doug Dailey, chairman of the Corn Palace Committee, which has been studying the 91-year-old building for more than a year. The committee has repeatedly come to the council with reports and has asked for funding to expand, remodel and update the building.
Monday ’ s vote was “an important first step, ” Dailey said.
It came after a long debate over the Corn Palace and its value to the city. The council spoke of it as the iconic image of the city, but some also said they wonder what real economic impact it has.
Mayor Ken Tracy said he supported improvements to the inside and outside of the building, but at a much lesser amount than has been suggested in the past eight months.
“ Regardless of how much money you spend on making changes to the Corn Palace, I do not think it is going to generate a huge increase in the number of visitors who are going to attend, ” he said. “The return on the investment is just not there. ”
Olson said he views the Corn Palace like a house. It needs to be cared for and invested in to keep it in shape, he said. Choosing not to do so is a statement.
“ Don ’ t cry when fewer and fewer people come to town, ” he said, his voice rising. “ We should state publicly here tonight we ’ re willing to accept fewer people coming here, fewer sales tax dollars, fewer entertainment tax dollars. ”
Rice said he was unsure how much the city gains from the Corn Palace. He noted the city had spent about $2 million on the facility from 2009 to 2011.
“ Are we going to spend any more money?” he asked. “ How much does that generate for the city? ”
Olson said the Corn Palace is worthy of city support.
“ The Corn Palace is Mitchell,” he said. “ Are you going to let it fall apart? ”
Olson asked Rice if he would favor rebuilding the Palace if it burned down. Rice said he would, but perhaps a smaller version. Tracy said he agreed with Rice in many respects.
Barington, who serves on the Corn Palace Committee, said the entire community profits from the Corn Palace.
“ Whatever is in that Corn Palace, we do benefit from it,” he said.
Barington said there is “ bad word of mouth” being spread that has reduced visitation. The city needs to invest in the iconic structure to reverse that. The Corn Palace Committee first brought a $35 million package to the city and has reduced that multiple times.
Barington made a motion to invest $6.5 million into the Corn Palace, including $2.2 million for a new auxiliary gymnasium. He said the committee ’ s goal is to raise $1 million in outside funds for the project, but he did not want to include that figure in his motion.
Olson said he disagreed with the councilmen who didn ’ t want to invest in the Palace or wanted to mostly spend money on a new gymnasium to replace the current one located above city offices.
“ If that ’ s our attitude, it seems to me this is an argument we don ’ t need to have,” he said. “I mean, it ’ s either worth the money or it ’ s not. ”
He said the city should start saying the last rites over the Corn Palace and spend money elsewhere, such as a new Rec Center or a satellite fire station.
Tracy was silent for most of the meeting as the councilmen debated. But in a 15-minute speech at the start of the meeting, he offered his views and choices, favoring the ice sheet, City Hall relocation and the library expansion.
“ All of these projects that have been presented to us are all worthy of consideration, ” Tracy said. “ Most of what has been presented to us has been in the line of recreation and activities for all ages. I think it ’ s important that we also spread out some of our assets we have available to us not only for recreational activities. ”
The Mitchell Skating and Hockey Association has pledged to raise $500,000 to help retire the debt for an additional indoor ice sheet, and Tracy and the council said that was a factor in it moving to the front of the line. In addition, with a second sheet, tournaments can be held here, which is estimated to pump $1.7 million annually into the local economy.
An effort to create a business improvement district (BID) for hotels and motels to help fund the project is under way, Tracy and Barington said.
At $2 per occupied room per night, an estimated $350,000 would be collected annually, Tracy said.
McCurry said he favors building a new City Hall downtown. An effort to obtain land to do so has just fallen through, McCurry said.
“ We thought we had an ideal spot that would have created a campus environment along First Avenue,” he said.
But the city could reach a deal with one of the landowners, McCurry said. He said the city still has “ good options” in downtown that would improve the area. As he did Aug. 6, McCurry pointed to the new Longfellow Elementary School as an example of how an impressive new building can boost an area of the city.
McCurry said the City Hall Relocation Committee didn ’ t want to “ build a Taj Mahal, ” but it wanted to plan for the future. He said while those plans could be scaled back, he thinks the city needs to look to the future.
Library Director Jackie Hess made the case for the council to invest in an expansion and upgrade of the library.
Barington said he feels the library will be able to find financial support in the community, and Carlson asked Hess if she could raise $400,000 to go along with the city ’ s allocation. She said she would try.
Library board member Betty Ellis said “ the children are our future” and the council needs to invest in the library. “When this library was built in the 1970s, the council then didn ’ t look to the future and plan ahead,” Ellis said.
This council should choose a different path, she said.