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Visitor numbers rise at Corn Palace

Tourists take pictures of the Corn Palace from across Main Street on Aug. 26. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)1 / 2
Joseph Mitchell, 24, takes a picture of his son, Joey Mitchell, 6, as Kevin Sequeira, 28, holds him up Aug. 26 next to the statue across the street from the Corn Palace in downtown Mitchell. The group stopped in Mitchell while traveling from New Jersey to Seattle, where the Mitchells are moving. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)2 / 2

Nearly 5,000 more people visited the Corn Palace this summer compared to last summer, marking a second consecutive year of increased attendance at Mitchell's 92-year-old attraction.

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"There is just so much energy at the Corn Palace," said Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Jacki Miskimins. "If you step in there, it's kids running around playing with things and it's adults taking pictures."

From May to August, 240,454 people visited the city-owned Corn Palace, according to statistics provided by the CVB. That's a 2.1 percent increase from 2012, when 235,530 people visited, and a 5.1 percent increase from 2011, when 228,850 visited.

All those totals are still below the levels from 2009 and 2010, when visitor totals were 270,663 and 271,051, respectively.

The totals represent the number of visitors who came to the Corn Palace from May to August, but exclude visitors who came for special events, such as festivals or concerts.

"It's busy in a really good way," Miskimins said.

Unlike last summer, road construction was relatively light along Mitchell's main thoroughfares this summer, which Miskimins said helped bolster visitor numbers.

"People are getting back to vacationing," she said. "It's really bounced back since the recession."

Attendance at the Corn Palace had its highs and lows this summer, according to Corn Palace Director Mark Schilling.

In May, 27,393 people visited the Corn Palace, 921 fewer than in May 2012. Attendance surged in June to 66,894 people, an increase of 4,737 from June 2012. In July, 82,722 people visited, 1,251 fewer than in July 2012. Attendance in August increased by 2,259 compared to August 2012, to 63,445.

The decline in July attendance this summer was disappointing, but seemed to follow a trend among other tourist attractions around South Dakota, Schilling said.

"It's something that's kind of mystifying the entire state," he said.

New exhibits

Six new exhibits installed at the Corn Palace early this summer extended the average stay for visitors from 30-40 minutes to nearly an hour, according to Miskimins.

"For anyone who was here this year, the numbers seemed much higher," Schilling said.

The exhibits include a Farmall Model H tractor, with steps for kids to climb onto the seat; a basket that visitors can lift to get a feel for the weight of a bushel of corn; a combine-driving simulator; a corn "tree" that shows dozens of products made from corn; a video presentation on corn genetics and detasseling; and an exhibit known as "Down at the Mill," which lets visitors shell an ear of corn with a hand-cranked sheller, and then grind the loosened kernels with a manual stone-grinder into cornmeal.

Most of the exhibits were purchased from the Indiana State Museum and cost roughly $90,000 altogether. That cost includes the parts to the exhibits, transportation to the Corn Palace and making the exhibits operable.

The longer stays at the Corn Palace should impact how much money is spent by visitors in Mitchell, Miskimins said.

"The longer you stay in a place, the more money you're going to spend," she said. "It's really a direct correlation."

From May to August, city sales tax collections decreased from approximately $3.53 million in 2012 to approximately $3.43 million in 2013, according to city records and Finance Officer Marilyn Wilson.

With a new $7.1 million plan to renovate and expand the Corn Palace in place and construction likely to begin next year, attendance numbers next summer will be hard to predict, Schilling said.

"We know we're going to face some challenges with renovations," he said. "Hopefully people are coming hoping to see what's happening."

The new plan calls for changes to the outside of the Corn Palace, including new light-up domes with LED lights that have the ability to change color, larger murals with improved lighting and large windows that open to a walk-out balcony above the marquee, and numerous other changes.

The Corn Palace will remain open during construction, but some areas within the building may need to be closed at certain times, Schilling said. Maintaining attendance, he said, will require clearly marked routes throughout the building and communicating to visitors exactly what is being done.

"You can be in the middle of construction, but if you explain what you're doing, and why you're doing it, it can still be a great experience," Schilling said.

Other attractions

Lori Holmberg, executive director of the Dakota Discovery Museum, learned this summer that a little advertising can go a long way.

Visitor attendance at the museum from May to August rose from 2,962 in 2012 to 3,719 in 2013 -- nearly a 26 percent increase.

"It's been phenomenal," she said. "We've had an amazing year."

Holmberg said attendance was boosted by $7,500 from the city of Mitchell, which the museum used to expand its brochure distribution and pay for other advertising.

At the city's annual budget hearings last year, the Mitchell City Council rejected the museum's request for $15,000 to hire a part-time educational coordinator and instead gave $7,500 for advertising. At this year's budget hearings held last month, the city again budgeted $7,500 to pay for the museum's advertising.

Within the next year, Holmberg said the museum plans to redesign its website and explore additional advertising opportunities, such as a billboard ad or special promotions for specific exhibits.

At the Prehistoric Indian Village, visitor attendance from May to August increased, but only slightly, to 10,624 compared to 10,342 last year. While the increase is relatively small, it follows a 28 percent increase in summertime attendance from 2011 to 2012.

The total number of visitors who came this summer to Mitchell's various attractions -- the Corn Palace, Dakota Discovery Museum, Prehistoric Indian Village, Carnegie Resource Center and Visitor Information Center -- went up from 258,799 in 2012 to 263,020 in 2013, about a 1.6 percent increase. See more numbers here.