Big changes loom for iconic Corn PalaceWith $6.5 million already bonded, much still to be decided about improvement project.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Some issues generate a lot of heat in Mitchell.
The use of land and the fate of trees around Lake Mitchell? Packed council meetings, and a petition drive and public vote that protected the land by designating it park land in perpetuity.
One-way or two-way streets? Meetings, discussions and another petition drive. Finally, a public vote was held that overturned the council decision.
Sunday sales of off-sale liquor? Another outcry, petition, and a public vote to overturn the council decision.
Sidewalk service of alcohol? A protest from local pastors and some residents, and a hasty retreat by the City Council.
Issuing $6.5 million in bonds to remodel the symbol of Mitchell? Almost complete silence.
Creating a “Next Generation Corn Palace” is already funded by $6.5 million, nearly half of the $13.9 million the city recently bonded to help pay for it and three other major projects — adding a second sheet of indoor ice to the city’s ice arena, expanding and renovating the city library, and building a new city hall.
More money may be added to the cost of improving the Corn Palace, as city officials and the design firm charged with recreating the building prepare a Phase II to the project. City Hall will eventually be vacated when a new city hall is built in southern downtown Mitchell, and the existing City Hall, which is attached to the Corn Palace’s north side, will be remodeled to become part of the Corn Palace — or removed to make way for an expansion.
The Corn Palace project will remake the most famous and iconic structure in the city, perhaps the most famous thing about Mitchell. But the public reaction to the bonding has been muted. City Council President Jeff Smith said the silence speaks volumes.
“Almost everyone that talks to me is encouraged with the four projects,” Smith said. “I believe most citizens care, or we would hear about it.”
Or, maybe it’s because nobody knows exactly what will be done to the Corn Palace. The money, or at least most of it, is in place, but not the plan, so there’s nothing for the public to evaluate except the cost.
The first two projects funded by the recent bond issue will be the addition of a second sheet of ice to the Mitchell Activities Center, which is set to happen this summer and fall. Expanding the Mitchell Public Library will happen over the next 15 months.
The Corn Palace expansion will follow, and moving offices from City Hall, and building a new city hall, would conclude the dramatic reshaping of Mitchell’s publicly owned facilities.
“Work on the Corn Palace design is being worked on now and that would be the next project to start construction,” said Mayor Ken Tracy.
Some concepts known
Based on work done last year, there are at least some concepts coming into focus on the Corn Palace.
The $6.5 million invested in the Corn Palace would provide for improved lighting, heating and cooling; improved domes, murals and minarets; a permanent gift shop; an upgraded lobby; an elevator to carry people to the second level; and additional and improved handicapped seating, according to Corn Palace Director Mark Schilling.
Two changes that are tied to using the current City Hall space are also under consideration. That space, which is attached to the Corn Palace’s north side, will be freed up when the city builds a new city hall in southern downtown Mitchell.
The improved Corn Palace would have two major exhibits in an effort to keep visitors inside the city-owned building longer, Schilling said. One proposal is for a timeline of the building’s history, featuring photos the city and others own; the other would focus on the evolution of corn and agriculture. Both would be in the current City Hall building or a replacement structure as part of the second phase of the project.
Another addition would be the construction of a new auxiliary gymnasium, since the current gym located above City Hall would be removed to make room for the permanent exhibits, Schilling said. A new gym would be needed for high school and college teams to use for practice, and to hold games among local teams, including youth clubs.
Schilling said planners had considered placing a new auxiliary gym to the south of the Corn Palace.
“We are looking at that as an option, but we would need to acquire property if the project goes south,” he said.
As of right now, it’s still up in the air.
The improved Corn Palace would also feature rotating exhibits in the front lobby and along the way to the second floor. While these are the current plans, some could change before construction begins, according to Tom Meyer, the founding principal of Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle, the Minneapolis-based firm hired to design a new Corn Palace.
“Final Corn Palace plans are expected to be complete in late summer,” Meyer said in an email to The Daily Republic on Thursday. “Before then the committee may bring in-process designs to the City Council for review which would be public, of course.”
He said the amount of money that would be spent on a second expansion, which will involve taking over the City Hall space, has yet to be determined.
“The project budget City Council approved is for work to the Corn Palace anticipating a future second phase to be funded for City Hall renovation,” he said.
Tracy said all final decisions will be made in a public manner.
“I do not know what is to be included in Phase II of the Corn Palace, but I would assume that in part would be the renovation of a vacated City Hall once a new City Hall is constructed,” he said in an email. “The $13.9 million is not part of the renovation of City Hall.”
Schilling said the city and Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce staffers and officials who have been working for more than two years on creating an improved Corn Palace see it as a long-term approach.
“As we look at the Corn Palace project, we know that we’re investing in the city and into the Corn Palace to enhance tourism and enhance our visitor experience that we’ve got,” he said. “Many of the dollars we have going toward the Corn Palace project are dollars going into repairs and the upkeep of the building.”
Some money has to be spent to keep the building “functional for the next 25 to 30 years,” he said.
This is the third Corn Palace. The first, an ornate wooden structure called the Corn Belt Exposition, opened in 1892. It was replaced in 1905 by a second, larger, showier Corn Palace. In 1921, the current building opened two blocks north of the where the first one was located.
Schilling said the planned improvements to lure more tourists will include “fresher designs” and a “touch of history.”
One piece of history Schilling would like to revisit is strong attendance. The Corn Palace has slumped in recent years, with fewer than 300,000 people visiting it during the spring and summer tourism season.
But he said when the attendance at basketball games, concerts and other events is added, more than 500,000 people pass through the doors each year. In the past, it was claimed more than 500,000 people visited just during the tourist season.
“I think some of the numbers are too high to put much validity to them,” Schilling said.
Still, the city has grown worried about declining attendance, and an equal concern is the length of time people spend at the Palace, and in Mitchell, as well as how much money they spend here. For too many people, a walk through the Corn Palace, or just a drive past, satisfies their curiosity, councilmen have said in the past two years.
Schilling said he seeks a “good balance” at the building, drawing tourists to see the famed structure, and locals and people who live in the area who come to see a game, a tournament or a concert. He’s counting on a professional design firm to assist him, and others in Mitchell, in finding that balance.
On Jan. 21, the Mitchell City Council agreed to a contract with Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle to create a design and oversee the renovation of and an addition to the Corn Palace and a renovation of the City Hall space. MS&R will be paid $758,000 for its services.
It’s the second contract the firm has agreed to with the city. It was paid $115,500 last year for a sweeping plan that would have required more than $40 million to complete.
That plan was unveiled on Jan. 16, 2012, in a meeting at the Corn Palace. The price soon turned the public, and the council, against it.
“The idea was putting those ideas out there and seeing what people thought,” Schilling said.
But he said people made it clear that some of the proposals were not needed.
“How many times are we in need of 5,000 seats?” he asked rhetorically. “I can’t say that it’s disappointing. We had to throw out all the ideas. And some people wanted to see what was the biggest scope that we could look at.”
The new concepts are considerably scaled back.
MS&R’s Meyer said proposed improvements to the streetscape, or a planned plaza concept with a large green space in front of the Corn Palace, have been scrapped.
The sweeping addition of a “Corn Tower,” which people could climb while examining exhibits and get a better look at the murals, as well as expanded seating inside the Corn Palace, are off the table.
Meyer called it a “more modest” approach, but one that he accepts.
“It’s not disappointing,” he said. “Our mission was to help the community find the sweet spot between what was fundable and what needs to be done. And I think we did that, and that’s this project that’s moving forward.”
2014 may be big year
Monthly meetings between the Minneapolis design firm and the Mitchell committee tasked with improving the Corn Palace are planned to begin this month so final plans can take shape.
Bids will be sought in July, and some work on the project could begin in the fall, with the majority of the work occurring in 2014. Contractors will be hired for the specific tasks, and then work can get under way.
“I hope so, and I think so,” Meyer said. “Finding windows for construction and phasing this is a topic for our first meeting when we come down there in a few weeks.”
Schilling said the majority of the work will take place next year, with a goal of completing it by mid-summer 2014 in time for the Corn Palace Festival, the week of concerts, a carnival and other events that is the highlight of the Corn Palace’s year.
Doug Dailey is a Mitchell lawyer, a native of the city, and a member of the Tourism/Corn Palace Area Development Committee assembled by the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce and the city. He grew up going to the Corn Palace, competed in it as a prep wrestler, and attended his Mitchell High School graduation there.
Dailey has attended numerous City Council meetings and offered several versions of the “Next Generation Corn Palace” to the city officials. He said he is pleased to see the process moving ahead.
“I just have pride in the community,” he said. “I like to see Mitchell continue to improve.”
Dailey said the 2012 proposal was a “wish list,” and it allowed the community to offer input. He said he’s excited to get going on the Corn Palace project.
Councilman Marty Barington is also a member of the committee, as is Schilling. At the Jan. 21 City Council meeting, Barington said it was time to act, and move ahead on the Corn Palace project.
While improving the Corn Palace is a major undertaking, it can be done without closing it down, Schilling said.
“It is my intent that at no point in this thing will the entire Corn Palace be shut down,” he said. “There are too many things happening, too many events scheduled.”
Tracy said he thinks the work can progress without too much of a hassle.
“One of their considerations is to work around all that’s being scheduled,” he said. “Then it’s just a matter of coordinating or scheduling.”
Tracy said how the existing City Hall space will fit into the new Corn Palace hasn’t been officially determined yet.
“That’s still up for discussion,” he said. “I don’t think there has been a great deal of design work on how the City Hall will be used.”
The existing building could be converted or demolished. Again, no firm timelines are in place for the new City Hall, Tracy said, and options remain on the table.
“That is all in the mix,” he said. “I don’t think there has been a lot of long-term discussion on that.”