Visitor numbers rise in MitchellMost local attractions see increased numbers, city’s total visitation grows.
By: Chris Mueller, The Daily Republic
Last summer, the Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau received phone calls from potential visitors asking if the Corn Palace was under water.
It wasn’t, but even though Mitchell’s renowned 91-year-old attraction wasn’t swallowed up in the floods that swept across parts of South Dakota in 2011, the number of visitors flowing through its doors during tourist season fell more than 15 percent from the year before.
But in 2012, the floodwaters dried up — and then some — and visitor attendance at the Corn Palace from May to August increased by nearly 3 percent compared to the same time period last year, totaling 235,530 people, according to statistics provided by the CVB.
“2011 was a tough year,” said CVB Director Jacki Miskimins. “In 2012, we’re seeing a little bit of a comeback.”
Though the numbers show the Corn Palace is far and away the most visited attraction in Mitchell, they also show the combined number of summer tourist season visitors to some other Mitchell tourist stops — the Prehistoric Indian Village, Dakota Discovery Museum, Carnegie Resource Center and Visitor Information Center — increased more than 7 percent compared to last year.
Including the Corn Palace, the total number of visitors who came to Mitchell’s attractions increased by about 3 percent during the 2012 summer tourist season.
The statistics represent the number of local and out-of-state visitors who came to the attractions from May to August, but exclude visitors who came for special events, such as festivals or concerts.
Don Simmons, dean of the College of Leadership and Public Service at Dakota Wesleyan University, said attendance at the McGovern Legacy Museum since Oct. 1 rose slightly more than 1 percent compared to last year. Simmons also serves as executive director of the McGovern Center.
Simmons had not yet provided the CVB with specific visitor numbers when The Daily Republic requested the information from Miskimins.
Corn Palace Director Mark Schilling said this summer’s upward tick was a welcome change.
“Tourism was hit really hard, especially peak-season tourism, from 2010 to 2011,” he said. As an example, Schilling said July attendance at the Corn Palace fell by more than 20,000 people in 2011 compared to 2010.
Visitor totals at the Corn Palace were promising early this summer, Schilling said, but with the midsummer heat, the numbers began to taper off.
“Given this summer and the construction that was going on and the heat we’ve had, we would love to see the numbers a lot higher,” he said. “But we’re very pleased to maintain and grow very slightly.”
Road construction was rampant this summer in Mitchell, including along main thoroughfares such as Burr Street and Havens Avenue, and on Interstate 90.
Widespread drought made it impossible to use the usual range of colored corn to decorate the Corn Palace this year, but the Corn Palace Festival Board voted last month to redecorate the murals this year anyway. The redecoration began Tuesday and will likely be completed by Nov. 1, Schilling said. “We wanted to make sure they did redecorate and did go that extra mile,” he said. “And it looks fantastic.”
During the city of Mitchell’s budget hearings last month, the City Council voted to invest $6.5 million in improving the Corn Palace. Though a detailed plan is yet to emerge, Schilling is sure the investment will increase visitor numbers and keep visitors in Mitchell longer.
“It’s going to change things,” he said. “When you create something new, there is a buzz about it.”
Keeping visitors in Mitchell for an hour or two longer can make a lot of difference, Miskimins said. She shared the belief that the enhancements to the Corn Palace will keep people in the city longer.
“Pretty soon, they’re spending the night,” she said. “That’s what I’m after.”
Next year, Schilling hopes the number of visitors seen early on this summer, when attendance was up more than 10 percent, will continue through the entire tourist season.
At the Dakota Discovery Museum, Executive Director Lori Holmberg said visitor attendance was hurt this summer by what she called “the month of orange cones,” when mid-summer road construction near the museum likely kept some visitors away.
“It got pretty quiet here,” Holmberg said. “It was pretty scary for a while.”
Visitor attendance between May and August at the museum is down nearly 3 percent from last year, but when the year ends, Holmberg expects the numbers will be similar to last year.
Citing a shortage of staff — the museum employs only one full-time employee and a handful of parttimers — and a lack of advertising funds, Holmberg requested city funding to hire an educational coordinator to develop programs at the museum. While the City Council denied her request for an educational director, it did provide the museum with $7,500 for advertising.
Holmberg believes creating the new position is still a possibility.
“Developing the programs is really key to the community,” she said. “It’s being able to offer the people who live here something to do.”
Continuing to develop the museum’s website and social media presence will be useful as well, Holmberg said.
“Online is really where it’s at,” she said. “You’re going to make visitors aware of you before they ever set foot out of their house.”
While Dakota Discovery Museum was adrift in a sea of orange road-construction barriers, visitors apparently swarmed to the Prehistoric Indian Village.
“July was just insane,” said Executive Director Cindy Gregg. The 3,682 people who visited the attraction in July set an attendance record, she said.
From May to August, the Prehistoric Indian Village drew 10,342 people, a 28 percent increase from the same time period last year. Gregg attributed the how the facility operates, including guided tours being given to everyone who visits.
“Nobody wanders through the village with no idea what’s going on,” she said. “I think that has made a huge difference.”
Advertising efforts, including coupons and an informational kiosk at the Corn Palace, have also helped “tremendously,” Gregg said.
“I want to see the numbers continue to rise,” Gregg said, adding she believes even more visitors would have come were it not for the exceptionally hot weather this summer.
The goal for all of Mitchell’s attractions, Miskimins said, is to work together to keep visitors here longer. The CVB will focus on continuing to market what the city’s attractions have to offer.
“My marketing philosophy is simple,” Miskimins said. “It’s to find out what people want and how to give it to them.”
The South Dakota Department of Tourism reported this month that visitor numbers at the state’s private attractions are up 8 to 25 percent compared to last summer. More than 2 million people had come to the state’s national parks through July, an 8 percent increase since last year, and more than 4.6 million had come to South Dakota’s state parks, a nearly 25 percent increase from last year.
The statewide increases should be beneficial to the tourism industry in Mitchell, Miskimins said.
“It’s very much a team effort,” she said. “The better South Dakota does, the better all of us do.”
Tourists gaze up at the dome of the Carnegie Resource Center in Mitchell while being guided by local resident Lyle Swenson, at right, in this 2011 file image.