For Mitchell, this year’s tourism season was one for the record books.
Despite the economic slowdown brought on by the pandemic in 2020, Mitchell’s tourism industry recovered in a big way this year, helping fuel the rebound of the local economy as a whole. Corn Palace Director Doug Greenway said business was booming all summer at the city's biggest tourist attraction, which saw about 225,000 visitors from May 31 to Sept. 6, about 70,000 more than the same time span last year.
“It was just a historic year. The Corn Palace Gift Shop reported an all-time record number of sales,” Greenway said. The gift shop is owned and operated by the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce. “In 2017, we had 230,000 people during that same time frame, which I found out was the most we had seen in many years. We were back near historic numbers this year. Our concessions sales were great as well.”
After the Corn Palace experienced a 27% decrease in visitors in 2020 compared to the previous year, Greenway said the landmark building is on pace to surpass historically high pre-pandemic yearly visitor numbers. From Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, the Corn Palace has seen just over 325,000 visitors, well above all of last year’s 272,000 visitors.
With three months until 2021 comes to a close, the Corn Palace is 46,000 shy of surpassing the most recent pre-pandemic visitor numbers in 2019, which saw a total of 371,000 visitors.
“I believe we will be well over 400,000 this year. That equates to a lot of people coming to see the attraction and spend money here,” he said.
The strong tourism season Mitchell experienced can also be seen in the increase in sales tax collections over the summer months during the peak tourism season that stretches from late May to early September.
For the third-penny sales tax that applies to sales from prepared food, alcoholic drinks, ticket sales and lodging such as hotel stays, the city saw a 22% increase in collections for July compared to the same time frame last year. Mitchell’s third-penny collections in July amounted to $479,396, compared to the $392,839 collected in July 2020. May and June also saw substantial increases in third-penny sales tax -- which is also referred to as the entertainment tax -- jumping 11% and 13%, respectively.
Although Greenway was anticipating a good rebound with this year’s tourism season, he didn’t expect to see attendance numbers for the slate of events hosted during the summer to be as high as they were. At the National Pedal Pull tournament that was recently held at the Corn Palace, Greenway said it attracted a record-breaking attendance in the event’s history.
“We had 4,200 people attend the Pedal Pull,” Greenway said, noting the Corn Palace Festival in late August also saw “good numbers” for both concerts and carnival riders.
As for what drove Mitchell’s banner year of tourism, Greenway pointed to South Dakota’s minimal COVID-19 restrictions in comparison to most states. In addition, Greenway said the open spaces and less densely populated areas where the state’s tourist attractions are located also played a role.
According to the U.S. Travel Association’s Economic Impact Report that was released in July, South Dakota led the nation in travel and tourism recovery, tying with Florida.
“I think people were looking to get to open spaces, physically, but also places that were open for business. It’s no secret that our governor said ‘South Dakota was open for business,’” Greenway said. “People responded to that, as they knew South Dakota was one place where they could go and enjoy life and eat at a restaurant or go to a live concert without so many restrictions.”
Considering roughly 70% of the city’s tax revenue comes from sales tax, it helps fund vital city services and operational costs for divisions of the city such as the Department of Public Safety and the public library.
As the Mitchell City Council will begin budgeting work sessions in early October, the city is projecting $755,000 in entertainment tax revenue, which is the budgeted amount in the proposed 2022 budget, marking a 16% increase from last year’s budget.
Geri Beck, CEO of the Mitchell Area Development Corporation and Chamber of Commerce, is trying to capitalize on the big tourism season to help bring more growth to the city.
With the hundreds of thousand visitors who trek to Mitchell to take in the Corn Palace experience, Beck and leaders of the MADC and Chamber of Commerce developed a way to advertise jobs inside the Corn Palace with a scannable QR code in hopes of attracting workers to grow Mitchell and its tax base.
“It’s pretty remarkable to see that for our taxable sales, and it has created a lot of interest in excitement in our community,” Beck said during a recent Mitchell City Council meeting. “With how many people from across the country visit the Corn Palace every year, we want to show them Mitchell is not only a great place to visit but a great place to work and live.”