Valtiroty Shiloh's Tabernacle owner considers moving on from Mitchell
Make Otinel Iancu an offer. But not any offer will suffice.
After 12 years on Main Street, Iancu recently put a classified advertisement in the Mitchell Republic, gauging the interest of potential buyers of Valtiroty Shiloh’s Tabernacle, which sits directly across from the Corn Palace.
"Have you ever thought of selling this building? people keep asking. Yes. When? Whenever someone needs it bad enough to be willing to pay the price. ... Your offer will determine if we have a deal now or if we need to wait another 10-15 years," Iancu wrote in the ad.
The notice of the building being for sale represents a crossroads for Iancu and his prominently located business: one that is frequently misunderstood but is for sale at the right price.
Iancu purchased the building — which housed the Enchanted Doll Museum for three decades until closing in 2006 — in 2008 after a chance encounter while visiting Mitchell on vacation with his family.
The Seventh-Day Adventist had an initial plan of using the castle-shaped building for a restaurant serving foods from the 12 Tribes of Israel, but quickly found it to be cost prohibitive. Now, he sells Bible-themed knick-knacks, offers Bible study to any customer who walks through, an indoor playground for children and a self-made replica of biblical lands.
While costs limited his original plan, money is now a factor in his sales inquiry. Open from June through September with investors who helped cover the cost of the building purchase, Iancu feels taxes from the business improvement district — established in 2018 — hamper his ability to turn a significant profit.
So, Iancu is fielding offers, but he is also not committed to selling. It must be the right price and the right buyer, otherwise he is content to stay in Mitchell and at 615 N. Main St.
“We’re going through tough times,” Iancu said. “I heard the week of the Corn Palace Festival, sales were down 40 percent. In the last five to seven years, five to seven businesses have opened and closed. One should ask why. The job for city officials should be to provide more customers, more tourists. Not to tax the people that are already strangled.”
Born in 1950s communist Romania, Iancu was expelled from his university for religious beliefs. And with his brother needing a kidney transplant, he escaped persecution to southern California.
He is a pastor by trade and has completed missionary work in Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Israel, Mexico and Sri Lanka. The father of three feels his mission is to serve God and when his daughters urged him to purchase the building, he could not rid himself of the idea despite being cash-strapped.
The listing price was less than $250,000, but he offered less than half the price simply to get the thought of the building off his mind. To his surprise, the offer was accepted.
So, he rounded up investors and eventually purchased the building. His permanent residence remains in California, but he spends each summer in Mitchell, as the store’s lone employee.
Typically, he is joined by his wife, but after three kidney transplants in the United States, Iancu’s brother died and he needed his wife to care for his mother.
Iancu has expressed interest in opening an outdoor store comparable to Valtiroty Shiloh’s Tabernacle in California, but it hinges upon the offers he receives.
“We never planned to be here. … If the Lord says it’s time for you to move, then there is going to be a buyer,” Iancu said. “If not, we’ll see what happens.”
Valtiroty has yet to receive any bids, but there was no price listed in Iancu’s advertisement. There was also no information about what the square footage of the building or any other useful information that might make the building appealing to a buyer.
The building is 8,993 square feet and is valued at nearly $225,000, according to Davison County property records. Iancu purchased the building from the Enchanted Doll Museum for $120,000 in 2008, records show. In 2010, Iancu offered the building for lease at $3.75 per square foot.
Given its location and the city of Mitchell's recent propensity to purchase property near the Corn Palace, both the city and the Mitchell Area Development Corporation have been looked at as potential buyers. The city passed on the chance to purchase the building after the Enchanted Doll Museum and it was once considered as a site for a Corn Palace gift shop.
But Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson said between uncertainty in the budget and no current use for the building, it makes little sense to make an offer.
“I don’t know what we would use it for,” Everson said. “We just don’t know where we are budget-wise with what’s happened in the COVID realm.”
Mitchell Area Development Corporation interim CEO David Lambert said Iancu has not reached out to the organization about purchasing it.
“In some ways, it’s kind of a sign that he’s trying to find someone who is trying to buy his building with very little detail," Lambert said. "We have people that stop in here all the time to get information about available buildings, so we’re a little surprised he hasn’t contacted us.”
Battling against the BID tax
Iancu loves Mitchell and sees unlimited potential for tourism in the city, but he feels too many opportunities are missed.
When Main Street business owners agreed for the BID tax, Iancu was an outspoken critic and felt unheard when he voiced his opinion at the March 4, 2018, meeting in which it was passed.
The BID agreement was implemented to tax commercial business owners to enhance their property and are expected to pay an assessment of $5 per $1,000 of property tax assessed, which would be used for park benches, statues, light pole banners and programming events. The tax is meant to generate about $45,000 per year for improvements.
Iancu was assessed at $1,124.68, according to the August Mitchell City Council minutes, which was the ninth-highest total for a business, and he feels there is no use for a park in the downtown area and the money would be better served to allow business owners to stay afloat.
“The Corn Palace is a gold mine,” Iancu said. “It should attract more than it does. Why can’t we do more to keep people sleeping in our town rather than just passing through? We could have evening activities on the lake, during the day canoes on the river. We could have evening activities (on Main Street) so people use our restaurants, our hotels and the money will come. You don’t need to strangle the local businesses that are struggling.”
A top tourist destination
While Iancu estimates his business gets around 2,000 visitors each summer, there are many in Mitchell that have never ventured inside the establishment or know what exactly the business is.
A Yelp review from a tourist from Mankato, Minnesota, in June 2015 criticized Valtiroty for being “incredibly creepy and ridiculous. Would steer clear altogether.” Even the Mitchell Republic questioned in 2013 the need for such a business directly across from the Corn Palace in an editorial.
Yet, Iancu also has a significant number of positive customers. YouTube influencers left positive video reviews after visiting. Valitroty also is listed as Mitchell’s No. 1 destination to visit on TripAdvisor, ahead of the Corn Palace. The site has 245 reviews for Valtiroty, with 207 being classified as excellent, while one called it poor and four voting it terrible.
“You should hear the reaction to kids when they come here,” Iancu said. “When the parents do Bible study, the kids can go and play. The kids love it, they just love it.”
Iancu is an unquestionably bombastic host, engaging all who enter in religious conversation and encouraging children to play on the playground. He made such a strong impression on one blogger in 2017 that she invited him to dinner with her family later that evening.
Such reviews make Iancu feel welcomed in Mitchell and it is part of the reason his intent to sell sits on tentative ground. When his restaurant plan fell through, Iancu put the building up for lease, only to pull it down and he is willing to do so again.
“I came here by prayer,” Iancu said. “If the Lord wants me to move on, I’ll go back to California and open an outdoor Bible park. I can buy 5 acres with less than $5,000. I want to be here. I like the people in the town, I have a lot of friends in the town, but nobody cares about us.”