Forging ahead with the Festival: Mitchell feels revenue hit but annual event claimed successes
The Corn Palace Festival went on as scheduled this year.
And in 2020, that is an accomplishment.
While revenues from the festival were down by about 50 percent, city leaders said that holding a successful festival was still a priority and a feat Mitchell was able to complete despite the challenges from COVID-19.
The five-day festival ran Aug. 26-30 and was held between Fifth and Ninth avenues along Main Street centered around the Corn Palace and Corn Palace Plaza.
“We knew going in that if we would have lost our carnival or all of our concerts, we wouldn’t have been able to hold a festival,” Corn Palace Director Doug Greenway said. “And thankfully, we were able to hold them together. … I’m appreciative of everyone who came down and enjoyed themselves.”
Greenway said a first look at the figures and receipts from the festival indicate that revenue was down about 50 percent compared to past festivals. That funding consists of sales from vendors, amusement rides and tickets, and ticket sales for the nightly musical shows.
In addition to concerns about COVID-19, Greenway said he noticed a much smaller level of representation from high-school age individuals at the festival.
“I think that’s probably attributing to the schools and the activities that are going on and that engaging with large groups of people you don’t know is being discouraged,” he said.
Greenway said similar reports came from fairs and festivals in Rapid City, Aberdeen and Sioux Falls, which also saw similar or larger decreases in revenue.
“We know Goldstar saw that in other places they’ve put on amusement rides, as well,” he said.
Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson said he heard good comments about how the festival unfolded, considering the circumstances of COVID-19 this summer.
“We got a lot of good comments about how things were set up,” Everson said. “We had some naysayers but I think people, in general, warmed up to the ideas.”
The festival held outdoor music shows on Thursday, Friday and Saturday during the festival to accommodate social distancing. Greenway said Sawyer Brown had the largest attendance, with about 800 people in attendance on Saturday, with Aaron Watson drawing between 500 and 600 attendees on Thursday and 200 to 300 people in attendance for Adam Pope on Friday night. (A complete financial recap of the festival is expected at the Sept. 8 Corn Palace Entertainment Board meeting, Greenway said.)
The festival schedule had numerous late changes, with country music band Whiskey Myers pulling out of the Friday show and Blackhawk calling off its Saturday night festival show due to COVID-19. The Oak Ridge Boys also postponed their show scheduled for Wednesday night at the festival.
Making a show of it
The outdoor show included a 40-foot wide stage that was built inside the southeast city-owned parking lot next to the Corn Palace Plaza. Greenway said his conversations with musicians and their crews was that many of them were eager to play on a large-scale stage once again, with some limited to private parties and small events during the pandemic.
“From the musicians in every concert, everyone was so appreciative to get on a big stage,” Greenway said. “They loved the venue and the backdrop of the Corn Palace in the background.”
That format was also popular with showgoers, too.
“We didn’t hear from a single attendee that didn’t enjoy it and wasn’t thankful for the chance to have this outside. The general sentiment I heard was: ‘We have to keep doing this with outdoor shows.’ So we’re going to be looking at how we can do that.”
Greenway said a large-scale stage and lights setup is expensive — the outdoor stage was nearly $20,000 for the festival and covered by corporate sponsors — so he said the challenge would be to have those shows and have the ticket pricing remain attractive to concertgoers.
The Corn Palace put on the outdoor Cornstalk Music Jam at the Horseman’s Sports Arena in 2019, which was not held in 2020. Greenway said it’s fair to say they’ll consider outdoor concerts in coming years.
“The good thing is that if it’s raining or there’s a thunderstorm in the morning, it doesn’t affect the parking lot,” he said. “And we have the Corn Palace available if there’s lightning or a rain delay, so to speak. … We’re going to take a good hard look at it.”
Greenway said Sunday’s music lineup, which was held inside the Corn Palace and included Cowboy Church, square dancing and polka music, along with the South Dakota Country Music Hall of Fame show, was appreciated by older festival attendees and between 200 and 300 people for most of the day.
Goldstar had slightly fewer rides in Mitchell this year, Greenway said, in part because the amusement company was hit hard by COVID-19 and had to lay off most of its staff and then subcontracted with other amusement companies, including Woonsocket-based McWhorter Entertainment, to build their carnival.
“They were spread thin because of the rides and the fact that they’re not at full strength and they admitted that,” Greenway said. “It probably had an impact on ridership and on their sales, but given the conditions, they did the best they could and we wanted to have a festival.”
Greenway commended the efforts by Goldstar to power-wash the rides every morning and frequently wiping down the rides. City workers sprayed sanitizer and the Corn Palace Plaza daily, and food vendors had sanitizer available prominently as well.
“We talked with our vendors about making a point for that, because we knew that’s what our visitors wanted to see,” he said.
This marked the second year that the festival has been positioned further north on Main Street, taking place between Fifth and Ninth Avenues. Everson said he didn’t hear much feedback about the setup this year and said he expects it to stay there going forward, but noted it’s the City Council’s decision.
The 2020 festival also marked the first Greenway has led since taking over the Corn Palace director role in November 2019. He said he was impressed with the support of numerous city of Mitchell departments and divisions that come together to put on the event and clean up when it’s done, ranging from the city’s Public Safety Department and Traffic division, Parks and Recreation department, and Public Works.
“At the end of the festival, we had an army of people coming down and moving signs and power washing tables and picking up litter to get Main Street open again on Monday,” Greenway said. “You really appreciate that.”
“It’s a big event for the city our size,” Everson said. “We love to bring people downtown and we like to showcase what we have to offer. It takes a sizable team to put it together and we like people to know it’s the city of Mitchell putting this on. We’re one big team and we have to work as a team to make it happen.”