Mitchell's biggest event venue could be getting bigger, as plans to expand the Corn Palace are heating up.

The main goal with the expansion is to add more seating capacity, along with renovating portions of the interior, which would open more opportunities for the Corn Palace to host larger events like state tournaments. Expanding the city-owned facility that’s known as a premier event venue in the state has been a shared goal among several city officials for some time.

“We all know how much people love playing and spectating at the Corn Palace, but we are a little shy of the seating capacity we need to bring those big athletic events like state basketball and wrestling tournaments,” said Jeff Smith, who has served on the Mitchell City Council for the past 15 years. “Mitchell is uniquely positioned more toward the central portion of the state, so that’s another benefit we have with the Corn Palace attracting the big events we’ve been missing out on.”

Although discussions of a possible expansion to the facility have surfaced among the City Council in recent years, plans to do so have not materialized. During the recent council work session, the discussion emerged once again. But now, it’s led to action.

In early May, the city opened a one-month window for qualified architectural firms to submit statement of interest plans on the expansion and interior renovation. Firms must submit their statement of interest plans to the city by June 1. Then, the plan will be reviewed by a newly formed Corn Palace selection committee. Replacing the soft, chairback seats on the west side of the arena is another goal of the renovation plan.

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“The main gist of this plan is looking at how can we get to the point of hosting the big state athletic events and other larger events without having to expand the building footprint,” Corn Palace Director Doug Greenway said. “Nobody has ever come up with an idea or plan to expand the seating without expanding the building’s footprint that I’m aware of. A few ways we could possibly do that are retractable seats and bleachers, along with demolishing the stage on the east side of the court since almost every big music performer has their own stage setup.”

Interior improvements to draw larger-scale events to Mitchell would rekindle a long-standing discussion in the community, going back to the 2007 vote that sought to increase property taxes in the city to fund a 7,000-seat $25 million event center on the Highway 37 bypass. That vote failed with 69% of citizens voting against the plan.

Some of the specifications that the committee is looking for in the statement of interests are plans of adding another basketball court, expanding seating capacity to a minimum of 5,000 seats -- which Greenway said is the “magic number” for the facility to host state tournaments -- and alternate stage options and seating capabilities like retractable seats.

While expanding the footprint of the building is not exactly what city officials are seeking to do, if the idea is economically feasible and has community support, Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson said “all options are on the table.” If the idea to expand the building footprint materialized, Everson said it would likely be on the east side, which is where the locker rooms are located.

The Corn Palace Plaza. (Matt Gade / Republic)
The Corn Palace Plaza. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Each qualified firm that submits a statement of interest will have its plan scored by the committee. The scoring criteria has four categories worth a set amount of percentage points, which includes the firm’s profile, qualifications, and experience that’s worth 40%. The remaining categories in the criteria are past performance and experience that’s worth 40%, project approach, methodology and schedule of events and familiarity, availability and compensation, which are both worth 10%.

“We’ve already had a number of architectural firms come in and scope out the Corn Palace already, so we’ve seen some great interest,” Greenway said.

Boosting local economy

Everson pointed to the significant economic impact an expansion of the facility would have on the entire city as a big reason for supporting the idea.

While the Corn Palace annually hosts large events in its current setup, ranging from basketball tournaments to concerts, Everson said the seating expansion would put Mitchell in the running to host state high school athletic tournaments that could bring upwards of 4,000 to 5,000 people to the city for a three-day stretch. Although bringing state athletic tournaments to the Corn Palace is a major goal, Everson said the expansion could bring larger events that Mitchell hasn’t been able to host due to the seating capacity.

“This would stimulate the local economy in a big way, such as boosting hotel occupancy, increasing restaurant business and local businesses downtown and throughout the entire city. We’re not just talking state tournaments, we’re talking dart tournaments, camping shows and pool tournaments,” Everson said, noting most of those events last up to three days. “A lot of these big sports tournaments are held in February and March, which is when hotels are slow. This would help get more heads in beds at a time when it is needed.”

As of now, the facility has a maximum seating capacity of 3,500. Everson said adding 1,500 more seats will be a tall task, but it’s one that’s “worth pursuing.” Putting a rough dollar figure on the project is something Everson said the city hopes to receive with the statement of interests, which he emphasized come at no costs to the city.

“There are so many benefits to investing in getting more seats and renovating the interior that it’s hard not to support such a plan,” Everson said. “The statement of interests require zero costs for the city, and we hope to get some good cost estimates in the process. We also will be opening this up to the public to see what they think about the idea and take in their suggestions.”

End of sponsorship contract opens up funding opportunities

With any large city project comes a price tag. To minimize the costs of the interior project, city leaders have been mulling over funding opportunities in the form of sponsorships and donors.

A big barrier to move forward with the interior expansion plan was the Corn Palace’s sponsorship contract with Daktronics, the Brookings-based company that installed the scoreboards and electronic screens inside the facility.

The Daktronics contract stipulated the city must present all sponsorships to the Daktronics marketing team as part of the 10-year contract agreement that recently ended in the fall after the city bought it out a year before it was slated to end. Smith said the contract was “holding us back” with sponsorship opportunities.

“We’ve got control now with all the sponsorships at the Palace, which will allow us to really go after many more sponsors and funding sources for the interior project. Doug (Greenway) has already been working on some new sponsorships and has some great ideas,” Smith said.

Some potential new sponsors that Greenway has in mind are agriculturally focused, such as farm equipment firms and seed companies.

“I really want to try to bring back more agricultural support to the Corn Palace because that’s what it’s history is rooted in. With the end of the Daktronics contract, it’s up to us at the Corn Palace to renew sponsors and gain new ones, and we’re actively in the process of doing that,” Greenway said.

Greenway added that he’s seeking to upgrade the north and south scoreboards with high-definition video screens, which would be able to run the latest technology in video advertising.

Shown here is the scoreboard above the center court. (Chris Huber/Republic)
Shown here is the scoreboard above the center court. (Chris Huber/Republic)

City Council President Kevin McCardle, who has been among the city leaders pushing to advance the project, has pitched the idea of adding premium seating areas. McCardle said the installation of box seating and suites situated along the edges of the walls would ideally overlook the basketball court in an elevated position along the west side of the court where the soft seats are as of now.

McCardle pointed to the suites -- which could serve as private, rentable seating areas for spectators (and would open the door for food and alcohol beverages to be sold during some sporting games and events) -- as a potential way to help fund the interior expansion project and provide an opportunity for the city-owned facility to cut down on the Corn Palace's annual deficit.

“That is one way of helping pay for this project. The Corn Palace has operated in the deficit for as long as I can remember, and this is a rare opportunity for a new revenue stream to cut into the deficit,” McCardle said.