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Visitor center plan evolves

During the unofficial kickoff to the summer tourism season this Memorial Day weekend, visitors to Mitchell will be greeted by the temporary visitor center located in a small cabin near Interstate 90.

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The former home of Kinder's Great Eats, pictured here, is the possible future site of a permanent visitor center that could also house the offices of the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce. The property is located on the northeast side of the Burr Street and Interstate 90 interchange. (Chris Huber/Republic)

During the unofficial kickoff to the summer tourism season this Memorial Day weekend, visitors to Mitchell will be greeted by the temporary visitor center located in a small cabin near Interstate 90.

But if the dream of local visitor-industry officials comes true, that small cabin will someday be replaced with a gleaming, permanent, yearround visitor center to greet tourists and point them toward the city's attractions.

The existing, log-cabin visitor center is in a parking lot near the former Kinder's Great Eats restaurant, on the northeast side of the Burr Street and Interstate 90 interchange. The Mitchell Area Development Corporation purchased the Kinder's property in April 2010 for $350,000, and the property is leased to the Chamber.

The Chamber hopes to demolish the Kinder's building and erect a structure that could house not only a year-round visitor center, but also the Chamber's offices, which would be moved from their current location across from the Corn Palace in downtown Mitchell. The cost of the project could be as much as $2 million, the Chamber estimates.

The location near the city's eastern I-90 interchange is key, said Hannah Walters, director of the Chamber's Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau. About 3 million vehicles pass by that interchange every year, according to the Chamber, and about 3,500 vehicles use Exit 332 daily.

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"With the majority of traffic in a visitation and tourism standpoint coming from the east, that's the primary exit we see people taking," Walters said.

According to Walters, the new facility would be the only year-round information center along I-90 between the Wisconsin-Minnesota border and the Black Hills.

Chamber Executive Director Bryan Hisel said the project is overdue.

"We should have taken advantage of that 40 years ago, but the best time for that is now," Hisel said. "The Corn Palace is a fun stop, but it's not a long stop. If they know the Indian Village, McGovern Library and Dakota Discovery Museum is here, they would stay. If they know it's here, they will take time to do it."

Currently, the city's visitor center operates out of the 12-by12-foot foot log cabin, which is only open during peak travel seasons. With a year-round facility, Walters said travelers could be enticed to stop by the center during shoulder traveling seasons, such as the fall hunting season.

Since the purchase of the Kinder's property, Walters said the Chamber has been working toward a funding plan to build the permanent visitor center. The Chamber board gave itself a three-year window to work on creating the best facility for the location.

Three options are available: renovate and use the existing Kinder's Great Eats building, add on to the building or build new.

"Our ultimate goal is to build brand new," Walters said. "We really feel that the existing property is a hindrance. We are limited on square footage. We could add on, but the new building would be the most effective option for a prominent, attractive center."

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Hisel agreed, adding that the Kinder's building, which was constructed in 1972, is structurally sound but does not suit the needs of a "highquality information center."

"We want to build it right the first time. Whatever we do right now will be here for 20, 30 or 50 years. It has to have longterm impact," Walters said.

The Chamber board has been researching state tourism and economic development grants, and last year the Chamber received a grant from the state Department of Tourism for $200,000. Walters said that money will be put toward the interactive exhibits inside the visitor center. The Chamber requested $250,000 in March in the form of a transportation enhancement grant through the South Dakota Department of Transportation. The Chamber also is seeking low-cost financing options.

Although there is no firm design, a sketch of what the Chamber would like the proposed visitor center to look like has been drawn. So far, Hisel said the board members know they want a building that is at least 6,000 square feet and two stories high. The height of the building would make it more noticeable from the interstate, Hisel said.

Building a new visitor center will cost between $1.5 million and $2 million, though that's only a rough estimate. It includes the demolition of the existing building, asphalt removal and the construction itself.

But none of that will be accomplished without funding.

"We need to find the money first. We will only be able to build what we can afford," Hisel said.

Once a new visitor center is in operation, Walters said it is possible the Chamber offices could relocate to the I-90 location.

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"In order to help our downtown businesses and attractions, if we're trying to draw more people off the interstate, that that's where we need to be -- on the interstate," Walters said.

It's also more cost-effective to operate the Chamber and visitor center out of one building rather than two, Hisel said, especially since a new visitor center would be open yearround.

"We're already open nine hours a day, five days a week (at the existing Chamber location downtown). We pay people to be here and we don't want to duplicate those costs," Hisel said.

"If we're located in (the I-90) area, the information flow can be handled during the offseason by our existing staff."

Jeff Logan, owner of the Luxury 5 Cinemas in downtown Mitchell and president of the board for Mitchell Main Street and Beyond, said he is "very much in favor" of a Chamber move.

"We can put our best foot forward," Logan said. "It's nice to have the offices on Main Street, yet I think it's more important to have it where it will do more good. We need to get people to Main Street first."

Mark Schilling, executive director of the Corn Palace, said a permanent visitor center is needed. And the transition of the Chamber offices from downtown to the interstate location will only increase guests visiting the Corn Palace and other local businesses and attractions, he predicted.

"The more people you get to the visitor center, the more chance of up-selling you have," Schilling said.

Molly Goldsmith, newly hired director of Mitchell Main Street and Beyond, said she is surprised at the number of visitors who stop at the current, log-cabin visitor center. Last year, 19,000 travelers stopped there. The frequency of those visits proves that a larger facility is needed, she said.

Aside from directing more people toward the downtown area, the Chamber's potential move would free up a downtown building that could be used for another business or tourist attraction.

"Actually, we shouldn't be wasting prime location across from the Corn Palace on offices," Logan said.

He recommended that the space be utilized to support the Corn Palace, whether that be an expanded gift shop, a green area or additional parking for visitors.

"(The Chamber) will be able to represent the town from any location. We hate to see them leave, but we see them doing more good on the interstate," Logan said.

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A small log cabin, left, in the corner of the former Kinder's Great Eats parking lot currently serves as Mitchell's visitor center. It would be replaced by a new, larger, permanent visitor center proposed for construction at the site. The Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce might move its offices from its current downtown location, center, to the new building. (Chris Huber/Republic)

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