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City Hall building to become 'museum-like' with renovation

In the lobby of the Corn Palace, agriculture-themed exhibits fight for space with concessions stands and racks of souvenir clothing.

But those exhibits, and others, could soon have a new, more spacious home if the city follows through on a plan to renovate the soon-to-be vacated City Hall building as part of the nearly $7.2 million, two-phase plan to renovate the Corn Palace.

Eric Amel, an architect with the Minneapolis-based firm designing the project for the city, said Tuesday the designs for the renovation of the City Hall building are nearly complete. The features planned include a large, open space for exhibits, complete with a small movie theater large enough to accommodate a busload of tourists.

"It will be somewhat museum-like, having some content for young and old alike," Amel said.

The existing City Hall building is attached to the north side of the Corn Palace and will be vacated and renovated in the second phase of the Corn Palace renovation project. But before that can happen, city offices will have to move out of the building to a new city hall planned for southern downtown. Plans for that project are still weeks away from being put out for construction bids, Mayor Ken Tracy said this week.

The existing City Hall building first opened as an armory in 1937. It served multiple purposes before city offices were moved there in 1960 after the old City Hall, located near the Carnegie building, was demolished. A basketball court still exists on the second floor, and will remain after the planned renovation.

"It's a ready-made container for exhibit space," Amel said of the building. "It's classy. It's got its own history in the community."

The only exterior change planned for the City Hall building are new doors in the main entryway. Amel said the new doors will be made to look like the original wooden doors the building had when it was first built.

Inside, Amel said the space will be vastly opened up to accommodate the exhibits and theater. It will also connect with the lobby of the Corn Palace -- to be renovated in the first phase of the project -- to allow visitors easy access to all parts of the attraction.

"The flow will be much more open and clear," Amel said.

When the Corn Palace hosts concerts or other major events, the exhibit space will be able to be closed off with a sliding screen wall, Amel said.

The Corn Palace already features a number of exhibits. Those are a hand-cranked corn sheller and stone cornmeal-grinder; 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; and a video presentation on corn genetics and detasseling.

Most of those exhibits were purchased from the Indiana State Museum and cost roughly $90,000 in all, which includes the parts of the exhibits, transportation to the Corn Palace and making them operable.

Doug Dailey, chairman of the Tourism/Corn Palace Area Development Committee, said the second phase is important because it will create activities for visitors to the Corn Palace.

"It's going to hopefully keep visitors longer and hopefully attract more visitors if there is more things to do," he said.

Amel said the success of the existing exhibits prompted thoughts of a dedicated space with more exhibits, which he hopes will entice tourists to extend their visits to the Corn Palace.

"If there is more of an attraction for traveling kids, people will stay longer at the Corn Palace, and in town," he said.

The cost of the second phase is expected to be about $3 million. That's a problem, because the city has set aside $6.5 million for both phases of the renovation, and $4.2 million has already been budgeted for the first phase. That leaves just $2.3 million for phase two.

The first phase of the project involves changes to the Corn Palace itself, such as new light-up domes, larger murals with improved lighting and large windows that open to a walk-out balcony above the marquee. The cost of construction for the first phase is expected to be about $3.62 million, with a 10 percent contingency taking up the rest of the $4.2 million budget.

It's still unclear where the rest of the money for the second phase will come from. Dailey said it's an issue the committee still needs to work on, though he added that any money left over from the first phase will be used in the second phase.

"We're going to have to see where this one ends up before we find out how much of a shortfall we need to make up to be able to do this second phase," Dailey said.

With construction of the first phase of the project set to begin in the next few weeks, Amel hopes the visible progress on the project will help spur additional support for the project.

"The community is simply anxious to see some results," he said. "That will help."