Drawing more visitors to the Corn Palace is a shared mission among city officials, but Mitchell’s biggest tourist attraction has experienced a drop in foot traffic this year.

According to Corn Palace Director Scott Schmidt, visitor numbers are down roughly 9,000 compared to this time last year. From Jan. 1, 2018, through July 31, 2018, visitor numbers came in at 243,588, compared to this year’s 234,442, equating to a total decrease of 9,146 visitors in the same time span.

Gauging visitor numbers each year in mid-summer is when Schmidt takes a deeper look into brainstorming future improvements to enhance the Corn Palace experience and boost visitor numbers.

While the dip in visitor numbers isn’t significant enough to call for alarm, Schmidt said, he is pleased with the overall look and feel of the Corn Palace. In his three years as the facility’s director, Schmidt suggested implementing more daily activities at the Corn Palace during peak tourist season could provide a boost in visitor numbers.

Although Schmidt has brought some of his activity ideas to life in downtown Mitchell, such as welcoming Food Truck Fridays this summer, how do current visitors and tourists perceive Mitchell’s main tourist attraction?

The Daily Republic took to the streets of downtown Mitchell to find out.

John Schleise, of Green Bay, Wisconsin, was glad his wife guided his young family to get a taste of the Corn Palace experience earlier this week.

Of all the unique features on the exterior of the building, Schleise said it was the corn murals that immediately captured his attention. As someone who has tremendous pride for military veterans, Schleise was deeply moved upon seeing the current “A Salute to the Military” themed murals.

“I really like the patriotism feel, and the murals speak to me,” Schleise said. “I like how there is a laid back feel here, and my wife was here when she was young, so she liked it enough to want to bring me and our kids back. I’m glad she did.”

Schleise’s wife Kristin said she noticed the murals seemed to have more ‘pop’ this time around compared to when she visited in the early 2000s. Enlarging the murals was part of the 2015 multi-million-dollar renovation project that also featured constructing a balcony and updating the domes.

Overall, the modernized appearance of the Corn Palace was perceived as a positive attribute that provides a worthwhile experience, adding some degree of solidarity to the city’s decision to give the Corn Palace a $4.7 million facelift.

As a first-time visitor of the South Dakota landmark, Dan Salas, of San Diego, California, said the signage promoting the Corn Palace on Interstate-90 played a significant role in he and his son’s decision to make a stop.

Coming from a larger metropolis in southern California, Salas wasn’t particularly fazed by the road construction that greeted him after turning off I-90.

“The construction isn’t bad at all, and I’m glad I stopped because I think it’s really interesting,” Salas said. “It’s a low-key attraction, and the art on the murals is awesome.”

While the artistic value of the corn murals stood out as the most intriguing aspect of his personal Corn Palace experience, he felt there was a lack of energy on Main Street.

“I like it, but my son thinks it’s a little corny, and I’ve noticed it’s pretty quiet down here,” Salas said on Tuesday evening at around 5 p.m.

Future suggestions from visitors

Providing a suggestion to spice up the dull vibe Salas mentioned, he said implementing a fun drawing game that includes creating a miniature mural in the same format that the artists and decorators do could add more life.

“After learning how the decorators put in so much work every year to get all the murals designed and corn hung, I think it would be cool to do something like a mural design game,” Salas said.

It would help put the process of how the building is decorated into perspective, he added.

Visitors stop by the gift shop inside the Corn Palace in Mitchell on Thursday morning. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Visitors stop by the gift shop inside the Corn Palace in Mitchell on Thursday morning. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Though the activity suggestion may be far fetched, it’s exactly what Schmidt has been trying to encourage community members and city officials to start discussing. At a Corn Palace Entertainment Board meeting in early March, Schmidt urged board members to include some suggestions on ways to improve the Corn Palace experience through the help of Future IQ’s community visioning process.

“Even if people who visit are only stopping for a short period of time, they still like to have fun, interesting things to do,” Schmidt said. “I believe there is some big potential to have some fun activities, such as covered wagon or dune buggy rides, near the Corn Palace.”

Travis Ison, a returning 32-year-old visitor from Topeka, Kansas, said he admires the rich basketball history that’s been a part of the Corn Palace.

Incorporating a carnival-like basketball shooting game with a prize that includes a signed pennant or jersey by former Mitchell Kernel legend and 17-year NBA player Mike Miller is an idea Ison came up with while browsing through the gift shop that will serve as a basketball court in the winter months.

“Since I’m a big basketball fan, I know this place is the home of Mike Miller, and he was a big name in the NBA. I mean he played on a championship team with the Miami Heat and he played high school basketball right here,” Ison said. "It would be cool to celebrate his career here."

Corn Palace Plaza a fan favorite

Bill Dalessandro, a 60-year-old returning visitor who felt compelled to show the Corn Palace off to his wife, Sandi, noticed several significant changes since his 2013 visit. It took a matter of seconds for the Ohio resident to note the difference in the domes that overlook Mitchell’s Main Street.

“There are a lot of changes since the last time I visited,” said Dalessandro, who came to the Corn Palace during hunting season several years ago. “I like the new domes, but the nostalgia of the old ones was neat.”

Regardless of his sentiment toward the traditional domes, he felt the change was necessary to add an artistic architectural feel to the building.

In addition to the wavy steel domes, the Corn Palace Plaza was returning tourist Jim Eby’s favorite addition to the landmark he visited as a young kid.

Focusing on the artistic side of things, Eby, a St. Petersburg, Florida resident, said the steel “CORN PALACE” sign and corn cob sculpture that sit in front of the plaza add a vantage point that makes for a great photo opportunity.

“This place is prime for photo opportunities. With the plaza and sculpture here in the background, it really does the Corn Palace justice,” said Eby, while snapping photos of his wife standing next to the sculpture. “It’s a really beautiful, unique building, and I remember there used to be a street right where I’m standing. I’m all in favor of these changes.”

Eby’s stance on the plaza was exactly the vision City Administrator Stephanie Ellwein had in mind when proposing the project to the city of Mitchell.

Of the eight out-of-state tourists The Daily Republic interviewed, six of them highlighted the plaza as a key feature they enjoyed. While the plaza was intended to provide a great photo opportunity capturing the building’s features, Ellwein said it was also designed to encourage tourists to get out of their vehicles and walk around the Corn Palace.

By simply inviting more tourists to hop out of the car and gather for a photo, Ellwein said it increases the odds of people spending more time soaking in the details of the Corn Palace, adding it can lead to a stop inside the gift shop where merchandise is on display.

“When we sat down with the consultants for the plaza, we learned that by adding features to encourage more people to get out of their vehicles, equates to people typically staying longer as well,” Ellwein said.

Despite visitor numbers being down this year, the Corn Palace gift shop sales are up, according to Ellwein’s figures she provided at a recent City Council meeting, proving the plaza may likely be affecting those increased sales numbers.

Appealing to broader audiences

Finding ways to make the Corn Palace more appealing and entertaining to youth visitors is also an area Schmidt has explored throughout his time as director. He noted it as one of the most significant challenges, but he said it’s a vital component to help keep the tourist attraction relevant in today’s world.

Although Mindy Choate, of Tacoma, Washington, was eager to make a short stop at the Corn Palace on her way back home from a vacation, the excitement she had prior to arriving wasn’t exactly shared with her young daughters.

“They weren’t too excited when they learned we were going to visit the Corn Palace, because they viewed it as a building with corn placed around it,” Choate said. “I really like it, but I would say it isn’t an appealing attraction for young kids. My daughters ended up liking the domes and the unique art on the murals, so I think it’s a place you have to just try out and come visit to see what you think."

In addition, the Pre-Sturgis Party that took place Thursday in front of the Corn Palace continues to be a big hit among the community and visitors. Not only did the event bring roughly 5,000 people to downtown Mitchell on Aug. 1, Schmidt said it promoted the Corn Palace to a population in a way that’s never been done before.

“That event alone opened up an avenue to appeal to the biking community,” Schmidt said, noting how important events are for the Corn Palace.

In the age of social media, kids and motorcycle fans who caught the video of daredevil Cole Freeman soaring through mid-air on his motorcycle with the backdrop of the Corn Palace now have another reason to visit the tourist attraction.

The event not only helped boost visitor numbers for the day, it helped the Corn Palace appeal to a unique group of people, which is something Schmidt said is important for the landmark’s future.

“We sometimes take this place for granted, and I couldn’t be more proud of how it’s progressed over the years,” Schmidt said.