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Tourists battle Corn Palace construction

Visitors make their way around construction at the main entrance of the Corn Palace Wednesday morning in Mitchell. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)

If you're building, will they come?

That's the question on the minds of tourism officials in Mitchell as a two-phase, nearly $7.2 million renovation of the Corn Palace ramps up just as this year's tourist season begins. Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Jacki Miskimins said it's hard to predict exactly what impact the construction, which began Monday, will have on visitor numbers.

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"I think there is going to be a real push and pull between people who want to see it as it changes, and people who are less sure of seeing it while it's under construction," Miskimins said.

Keeping track of the number of visitors who come to the Corn Palace presents its own challenges during the construction process, which is expected to last until at least next spring.

The Corn Palace's main entrance -- where turnstiles have traditionally kept count of visitors -- will most likely close today, according to Assistant Public Works Director Terry Johnson. Once the main entrance is closed, visitors will only be able to enter through a temporary entrance on the south side of the building.

Without turnstiles, greeters working at the Corn Palace will carry hand-held tally counters and manually track the number of visitors.

"It's not perfect, but it's pretty good," Miskimins said.

The sales made at the gift shop on the Corn Palace's arena floor during the summer will also be tracked and could be extrapolated to give a rough estimate of the total number of visitors, Miskimins said.

Both plans, admittedly, were devised in a relatively impromptu manner, Miskimins said.

"We've been so focused on visitor experience that some of those secondary priorities got glossed over a bit," she said.

The 600 block of North Main Street, directly west of the Corn Palace, was blocked to traffic Wednesday. The 100 block of East Sixth Avenue, directly south of the Corn Palace, will be closed to traffic Tuesday, according to Johnson.

Dale Odegaard, the man in charge of the Corn Palace's summertime gift shop, said signs have been put up around the Corn Palace to direct tourists around the construction.

"We're trying to make it as legible as possible so we don't have any tourists not understanding where to go," he said.

The box office was in the process of being moved Wednesday from its location near the main entrance to a temporary location near the south entrance, according to Assistant Corn Palace Director Jeri Mickelson.

While the construction presents a challenge for those involved in the city's tourism industry, Miskimins said it's also a chance to engage with visitors about the project, both in person and through social media.

"We've been presenting it as an opportunity to see the before and after," she said.

Richard and Ann Hill, of Melbourne, Fla., visited the Corn Palace on Wednesday. They were aware of the construction beforehand, but said they were still disappointed with the timing of their visit. The large murals on the front of the Corn Palace have already been completely stripped of corn, exposing the wood panels beneath.

But they enjoyed the murals inside the Corn Palace and had no trouble navigating around the construction. Ann Hill commented on an architect's rendering of the renovated Corn Palace displayed at the entrance of the gift shop.

"It's going to be gorgeous, but it's so far away from Florida that I don't know if I'll see it," she said.

Miskimins said it's important to keep track of the number of visitors who come to the Corn Palace because it indicates if the strategies being used to attract tourists are effective.

In 2013, a total of 240,454 visited the Corn Palace from May to August. That's 2.1 percent more than 2012's total of 235,530 visitors, and 5.1 percent ahead of 2011, when 228,850 visited. All of those totals are still below the mark set in 2010, when 271,051 visited from May to August.

"The more visitors we get to the Corn Palace, the more we're likely to get at our restaurants and our hotels," Miskimins said. "And that's going to have an economic impact."