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Officials say Palace murals failing two-year test

Spending more than one year lining the Corn Palace's exterior walls, the building's famed murals may have lived up to it's informal title as the "world's largest bird feeder."...

Pieces of the Willie Nelson mural on Mitchell's Corn Palace can be seen falling off of the mural that was installed during the fall of 2015. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Pieces of the Willie Nelson mural on Mitchell's Corn Palace can be seen falling off of the mural that was installed during the fall of 2015. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Spending more than one year lining the Corn Palace's exterior walls, the building's famed murals may have lived up to it's informal title as the "world's largest bird feeder."

As part of a cost-saving trial run pitched by Mitchell Mayor Jerry Toomey and OK'd by the City Council, the nine murals alongside the walls of the city's signature tourist attraction stayed up for two years rather than one. The city did, however, replace the grasses lining the walls of the tourist attraction, with decorating costs reaching $79,445.26 in 2016.

But City Councilman Marty Barington doesn't think it was worth the cost savings.

"I just wish we would've changed them and keep the comments positive from new tourists to locals in Mitchell to the repeat customers or tourists that are coming in town," Barington told The Daily Republic on Tuesday. "I just think we made a mistake here, I really do."

Approximately $157,000 was spent in 2015 to redecorate the building's exterior, but both Corn Palace Director Scott Schmidt and Barington agreed the murals should be replaced each year.

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The murals are made entirely of corn, but the kernels have been picked off the faces of Willie Nelson and Elvis Presley, performers who are featured in two of the building's three largest murals. Full corn cobs have also slowly fallen from the murals down to the sidewalks below since the installation.

Now that the murals have faced the animals and elements since the fall of 2015, Schmidt doesn't think they've passed the eye test.

"The murals just aren't looking the best," Schmidt said on Tuesday. "We've had a lot of corn fall off, I wouldn't say it's been a relatively horrible winter, but it's been a tough winter, so we weren't really sure what to expect with this. And I guess what I was expecting and what actually happened - what happened was actually worse than I expected."

Schmidt said new visitors don't always notice the cosmetic damage to the murals, but locals and repeat visitors notice, a point Barington reiterated.

"Are they bad yet? No, but you can see the dilapidation and the tiredness in them already and we've still got a huge tourist season coming up," Barington said.

The decision to replace the murals every two years was spearheaded by Toomey after the Palace's expenses topped its revenues by more than $300,000 for the fifth consecutive season. But the decision also followed a $4.7 million renovation of the building that included larger murals, a revamped entryway and lobby and an art gallery on the second floor of the building.

Weighing the building's importance to the community and the expenses to keep the structure in peak condition, Barington suggested it's reasonable to invest in the Palace.

"It's an iconic structure, it's a centerpiece of our community, and I believe that's one area that you've got to keep on investing some of the taxpayers' money to make our city look good when we have all these tourists coming on in town," Barington said.

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In 2016, the Corn Palace Events and Entertainment Board discussed preliminary designs for the 2017 murals, which focused on the theme of South Dakota seasons. The murals would have depicted a images like a tornado, rainfall, autumn leaves and a sunrise or sunset, replacing the "Rock of Ages" theme adorning the Corn Palace.

Whether the murals are changed every year, however, could be determined by a newly created committee.

According to Toomey, the Corn Palace Operational Committee will host its first meeting this week, and he said it will be up to that committee to offer a recommendation on the murals.

While both Schmidt and Barington would like to see the city return to its old ways and replace the murals annually, one possible hiccup could be the construction of the Sixth Avenue plaza. The first phase of the green space immediately south of the Corn Palace will include early infrastructure work and the addition of grass and walkways, but Barington said he's heard the plaza project shouldn't get in the way of the work to replace the murals.

The current theme is expected to be replaced after the corn for the murals is harvested in late summer or early fall, and Schmidt said the city will use the South Dakota seasons theme.

Palace losses stagnant in 2016

Under the direction of Schmidt, who completed his first year as Palace director this month, the Corn Palace expenses topped revenues by $435,931 in 2016 when subtracting appropriations from the general fund. That's compared to $423,726 in 2015, according to the city finance office. These totals also account for the entertainment tax transfer to the Palace.

Along with successful Corn Palace concerts in 2016 and the decision not to install murals, Schmidt said careful spending is the cause for the improved fiscal outlook in 2016.

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"We didn't go out of our way to spend money," Schmidt said. "There wasn't anything extraordinary that we did to the Corn Palace this year."

In 2016, Palace concert profits netted a profit of $27,161.74 on seven shows despite three performances losing money for the city. And the most profitable act of the bunch, Minneapolis-based rock cover band Hairball, will return to Mitchell in April.

Schmidt also said the Corn Palace Festival lineup is also nearly set, with all but the Friday show finalized. Though, the announcements have not yet been made public.

And with one year experience managing the city's large event center and tourist attraction, Schmidt hopes to continue boosting revenue and limiting expenses through prudent operating practices.

"It's going to be kind of a year of sitting back and kind of watching our budget again," Schmidt said. "Not doing anything too crazy, but getting the right entertainment - the focus for the next year is getting the right entertainment in here as far as our concerts."

Related Topics: CORN PALACE
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