It’s show time at the Corn PalaceCity has invested in more concerts and events, and turned profit on them in 2011 and 2012.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
More and more, it’s show time at the Corn Palace.
In 2011 and 2012, there were an increased number of concerts and other events at the city-owned facility. That has been a good investment for Mitchell, according to Corn Palace Director Mark Schilling.
The Corn Palace has increased the number of concerts and other events it holds in the past two years, Schilling said, and has turned a profit of about $41,000 with those added shows.
“We decided, ‘Hey, we want to be more of a player,’ ” he said. “We’re more than the Corn Palace Festival.”
The Corn Palace has traditionally hosted four or five concerts during the Corn Palace Festival, which is held every August, and two more concerts were usually held there during the year.
In 2011, four additional shows were held at the Corn Palace. Expenses for those four additional shows were $58,000, while revenue was $72,000, a $14,000 profit, according to figures reported to the Mitchell City Council.
In 2012, seven additional shows or events beyond the festival were booked. The cost for the 2012 shows was $178,000, and the revenue was approximately $205,000. That’s a profit of $27,000.
The additional revenue helps with overhead expenses, Schilling said. But the Corn Palace still needs subsidies from the city’s general fund to meet overall expenses. Those appropriations from the general fund totaled $400,000 in 2008 and have remained stable since then, totaling $390,000 in 2012.
That money is dedicated to two areas: decorations and capital outlays.
Schilling said decorating the building costs about $175,000. The exterior murals are re-covered every year in colored corn and other grain. The corn is purchased from a local grower, and temporary workers are hired to fulfill the vision of a local artist who is paid to design the murals.
“It takes a lot of hours, it takes a lot time to do it, and the farmland and the things like that keep going up,” Schilling said.
Another $200,000 or so is spent each year on one-time expenses, such as new doors or other improvements. Schilling said the building, which is used virtually every day of the year, requires constant maintenance and upkeep.
The proceeds from shows and events, around $1.3 million in recent years, cover operational costs, such as salaries for Corn Palace staffers.
The Corn Palace’s total budget has increased in recent years, jumping from $1.392 million in 2008 to a budgeted $2.187 million in 2012. The 2012 budget was about $400,000 higher than in the past three years, largely due to repairs to the Corn Palace roof after a May hailstorm.
Schilling said he does not have a breakdown of profitability per show.
“Some were promoted by the Corn Palace, some are co-promotes, and others were rentals,” Schilling said, explaining why it’s difficult to compare individual shows and events and determine the exact profit and loss. Rentals occur when promoters of events rent the Corn Palace and run the event themselves.
‘Trying to build it’
Schilling said some shows are more successful than others, but the goal is to get people accustomed to the idea that the Corn Palace will host concerts and events on a regular basis. That’s an investment in the facility, Schilling said, and in the concept that Mitchell is a place where events are being staged.
“Like with anything you’re doing, you’re trying to build it,” he said. “You’re bringing in more entertainment that they’ve not heard of, so we’re trying to do a mixture so they have different prices.”
The shows have ranged in price from $20 to $50 per ticket, and there has been a mixture of styles, including country music, classic country, rock, disco, heavy metal and Christian music. Comedy performances are being considered.
Adding shows has evolved over two years, and Schilling said ideally, as many as 15 extra events, outside of the Corn Palace Festival and other regularly scheduled shows, may be held.
The most popular of the venue’s extra shows was the dual show by country singers Billy Currington and Jake Owen, which drew 2,450 people. The Palace’s capacity for a show is 3,200.
The least popular was a free show offered with little advance publicity, when Danish and the Finger, two Norwegian comedians who were filming a documentary in the state, did a show for 225 people in 2011.
In addition to shows, the Corn Palace hosted its first-ever bull-riding event. It was a partnership with a promoter but leaned more toward a rental, Schilling said.
“The Corn Palace did not take near the same risk as the promoter had the event not been successful,” he said.
Whatever the Corn Palace or a promoter makes or loses, Schilling said, there is always a benefit to the community. People come to Mitchell to attend events, and if they purchase anything while they’re here, including meals and drinks, that brings more sales tax dollars to city government. The city’s sales tax rate is 2 percent, and there’s an extra percent added to purchases of hotel rooms, prepared food and alcoholic beverages.
“The goal of Corn Palace events is to provide entertainment options for the Mitchell region and to generate revenue for the Corn Palace as well as the community,” Schilling said. “If we can reduce the amount of general fund dollars needed, these efforts will be viewed as a major accomplishment.”
Some Mitchell businesses also like the heavier show schedule.
John Foster, of The Depot Pub & Grille at the south end of downtown, said the extra shows bring people to his bar and restaurant.
“Yes, we do. We see it,” Foster said. “Usually people will stop down for a bite to eat or something before the show. We do see the difference.”
In the summer, Schilling has been unable to book shows because the tourist gift shop is on the floor of the building. But that could change. The City Council is preparing to build a new city hall in a different part of the downtown area. That would free up the existing City Hall, which is attached to the Corn Palace, to potentially house the gift shop.
“Once City Hall gets renovated, we’re hoping to open up that market,” he said. “What shows can we do in the summer?”
The growth in shows has been slow but steady. It started with the 1980s hair-band tribute group Hairball in the spring of 2011.
“We were looking to have some extra shows,” Schilling said. “The staff, and the Corn Palace committee, what we continually heard, we have so much great entertainment at festival time. But it’s a busy time, for some people, and they really don’t have time to come to the festival.”
There was reportedly a growing desire for more entertainment in Mitchell, including “date night” options for people.
“People wanted something a bit different, something other than going to a bar,” Schilling said. “ ‘Change it up a bit’ was the thing we had heard.”
Still, there are limits.
“What will the market bear? What types of entertainment is the community looking for?” he said. “I think you reach that saturation point.”
Some shows are a loss leader, he said, as the Corn Palace builds a reputation as a venue. The Boogie Wonderland show this fall drew fewer than 1,000 people, but Schilling said he feels if it comes here again, it will draw more.
Board plays key role
Schilling relies on the 10 members of the Corn Palace Festival Board for their thoughts on shows, scheduling and what works in Mitchell. He said while they hold meetings, he will also exchange text messages or phone calls with board members to ask what they think of offered shows, how they might be received locally, and if there are other events on that date that might create a conflict.
Mayor Ken Tracy said he supports scheduling more shows.
“I think that the Corn Palace Committee’s plan to offer more shows is a good idea,” Tracy said. “They will offer a variety of entertainment to the residents of Mitchell and also to the people in the surrounding area so they don’t have to travel to Sioux Falls or Sioux City to see quality entertainment.”
City Council President Jeff Smith, who is a Corn Palace Committee member, said it has worked out well in the first two years.
“As long as we can break even with the additional entertainment,” Smith said, “we will continue to bring a wide range of shows and events to the Corn Palace. Any time we can draw people to the Corn Palace, all of the businesses in Mitchell benefit.
Smith said the city is fortunate to have a relationship with a top entertainment agency that finds good acts at reasonable prices for the Corn Palace. That agency is the Romeo Entertainment Group, which has offices in Nashville and Omaha.
Company owner and President Fran Romeo, who is based in Nashville, said she has been booking festival shows for years and has now added additional duties.
She offers a variety of shows to Schilling, but country music and oldies seem to go over the best. Classic rock acts are a “challenge” at the Corn Palace, Romeo said.
“It just really depends on what’s routed up there, and it really depends on the artist,” she said.
Mitchell uses Romeo agency to book many of the larger acts for the Corn Palace Festival. Romeo acts as the city’s agent much the same way a real estate agent works in a house sale, Schilling said. There are other agencies the city uses for smaller acts, and the city sometimes goes direct to the agency of the artists.
The benefits of using an agency include assistance with contract negotiations and block buys, Schilling said. Agencies can help route artists to Mitchell by putting together other offers from the region, including Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa and other nearby states.
A veteran big-name artist, like the Oak Ridge Boys and Willie Nelson, costs between $30,000 and $50,000. Newer, hotter acts can cost more. Smaller shows, such as Boogie Wonderland, cost around $5,000.
Schilling said some prices are reduced for the Corn Palace, since it’s a smaller venue, and scheduling can also lead to a reduction. If Mitchell wants to offer a show in the middle of the week, an act that is touring the Midwest will often play for a reduced price.
But if the Corn Palace wants an act for a definite date, such as during the festival, it may have to pay a bit more, Schilling said.
“It definitely goes both ways,” he said. “It’s supply and demand, just like anything else.”
Schilling and his assistant Jeri Mickelson attended the International Association of Fairs and Exhibitions in Las Vegas this fall. It’s a chance to meet with agents, and check on potential shows for the Corn Palace.
While they see some acts, and try to make deals, there are many factors to consider, including price, the act’s touring schedule, and if they would draw in Mitchell. Schilling tried to land former Poison singer Bret Michaels, but a deal couldn’t be worked out. He said he may try to bring the hair-metal musician in another time.
Expect to see more Christian music acts, Schilling said. He has been talking with the agent for the Newsboys, a popular Christian rock act.
“We need a big name, a known name, for that first Christian show,” Schilling said.
Other factors are weighed as well when acts are selected.
In January and February, many basketball games are booked at the Corn Palace, limiting dates, Schilling said. Some shows take two days to load in and do the show, so that has to be considered.
He tries to create a balance of offerings. Having two classic country artists in two weeks isn’t a good idea.
“We’re trying to figure out what the best balance is,” Schilling said.
But when it works well, people from the region come to Mitchell for a weekend getaway. Shows held at 6 p.m. Sundays seem to draw an older clientele who are interested in dinner before the show, and then seeing it with friends, often in a table setting. Schilling said he asks people, how do we make this a better show?
Susie Cuppy, who lives in rural Mitchell, has been attending Corn Palace events for more than a decade and welcomes more shows.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Cuppy said. “I don’t think it should be just once a year it’s used for concerts.”
She said the Bull Bash was an impressive event, and she encourages other people to attend the shows.
“I like any of the country shows. All of them are good,” Cuppy said. “I can’t understand why more people don’t take advantage of having it right here in town.”
She does offer a piece of advice for the venue: Remove the floor seating for some shows to allow people room to dance and move around.
Staffing a factor
Schilling said offering more shows has been one factor in the Corn Palace’s success, but not the sole reason.
“Part of it was public outcry. Part of it we have the staff to do it now,” he said. “People are seeing our box office as year-round. We’ve never had a date when we haven’t had a ticket on sale.”
Jeri Mickelson was named assistant Corn Palace manager earlier this year. The position was created two years ago. In addition to staffing the ticket office and working with him on the shows, she has another role as the head of concessions.
“Concessions play a huge part in it,” Schilling said. “We have to look at all revenue streams when hosting events, not just the paid gate.”
The Corn Palace staff is able to put on the additional shows with almost no increase in hours, he said. The maintenance workers do clean-up work no matter how many people pass through the Corn Palace. While bigger shows create more of a mess, Schilling said, he’s been able to keep the hours within their regular schedule.
More part-time concession workers are added for the shows. Though that means more hours and payroll, it also means more sales and increased revenue. The part-time workers also often contribute sometimes to help clean things up after shows.
The Corn Palace itself isn’t impacted by hosting more events, according to Schilling.
“There really isn’t a lot of wear and tear on the building,” he said. “There are some additional expenses, but you’re figuring that into it.”
He said competing with Sioux Falls for shows is not a major issue.
“It really depends on the show. Some would prefer to play a 3,000-seat venue,” Schilling said. “Here we have great acoustics.”
The Corn Palace capacity is 3,200, and he aims for 1,200 to 1,500 people per show. Some, such as the Jake Owen and Billy Currington show on Sept. 14, and the Happy Together Tour during the Corn Palace Festival, topped 2,000.
Another draw is that entertainers like the historic appeal and excellent acoustics in the building.
“Oh yeah, they love the Corn Palace,” he said. “It really helps when you say, ‘It’s the Corn Palace.’ It’s a different atmosphere than what they see everywhere else.”
The city’s agent agrees.
“You know what, they love the venue,” Romeo said. “I’ve heard nothing but good things about it from them. They get first-class treatment.”
The Corn Palace already had a packed schedule before increasing its number of shows. It is used 325 days a year, counting the summer when the gift shop is on the main floor, as well as high school or college athletic practices and other uses.
The Dakota Wesleyan University men’s and women’s basketball teams, and the DWU volleyball squad, practice and play at the Corn Palace. They can also use the campus wellness center, which allows the Corn Palace to schedule other events if something attractive comes to Schilling’s attention and there is a conflict in dates.
Mitchell High School gets 18 dates free as part of a city-school district agreement and can pay for more. Its practice dates are free.
Schilling said practices are “kind of an attraction” at the Corn Palace, as people will see them while touring the facility and sit in the stands to watch.
Former MHS basketball coach Gary Munsen was always a favorite, and Schilling said it seemed the old coach knew when he had a crowd during practice, and put on a better show.
Earlier this year, two young women who were touring the country stopped at the Corn Palace. When they learned there was a bull riding event that night, they decided to stay in Mitchell and see the show.
Schilling said they had one question: “Where do we get a pair of cowboy boots?”
He directed them to Moody’s Western Wear, south from the Corn Palace on Main Street, and the women bought the appropriate footwear for that night’s show.
Schilling said “shoulder season travelers,” people who come to Mitchell in the fall and spring, sometimes stop at the Corn Palace and decide to stay in Mitchell longer.
“That’s the biggest promoters we have, who go out and tell other people, ‘You have to go to the Corn Palace,’” he said.