Twenty years ago I was a Corn Palace tour guide for several summers. A woman from New Jersey walked up to the guest desk and asked “Is it safe to drive west on I-90?” The question puzzled me.
I answered something like, “There is always road construction in the summer and the long, straight interstate does encourage speeding but it is perfectly safe.”
She shook her head and said, “That’s not what I mean.” She leaned forward and half whispered, “I mean Indian attacks.” “Indian attacks?” I reiterated incredulously. “Indian attacks,” she repeated solemnly. She was absolutely serious. I blame a general ignorance of history and Dances With Wolves, which was popular then, for her misunderstanding.
People, especially from out east, hunger for a connection to our pioneer and Native American heritage and we miss the boat when we ignore any opportunity to satisfy that yearning for information or an experience.
The Corn Palace originated in 1892 as a gimmick by the Real Estate Association to sell land to farmers, gulling them into believing farming was a lark by evidence of an abundance of corn that could be wasted decorating a building.
Governor Noem has reported that almost 55,000 jobs (1 in 10 South Dakota occupations) are in tourism. South Dakota hosted 14 million tourists last year, generating $2.66 billion in economic activity and $298 million in taxes for the state.
Last year in Mitchell, the third penny “entertainment” tax generated $789,000 alone. If you combine that with the additional sales taxes paid in conjunction with the third penny, then “tourism” revenue to the city was $2,368,874 last year, a welcome income stream that many other communities don’t enjoy to the same degree; that doesn’t begin to count the economic impact of tourist dollars on private businesses providing employment and additional sales tax dollars.
Of course “tourism” is many things. Some of that revenue is generated here in town by locals when we go out to eat, rent motel amenities for graduation parties or other family events, take in a show or visit a local tourist attraction ourselves.
Mitchell hosting various events -- State Amateur Baseball, youth tournaments, DakotaFest, Corn Palace Week, pheasant hunters and the like -- is a major source of tourist revenue unrelated to the typical notion of tourism being summer visitors dropping in on the Corn Palace.
An unsung generator of “tourist” dollars is the Logan Luxury Theatre. Naturally there are some tourists who take in a movie during their stay in Mitchell. However, there are many more people who don’t live in Mitchell who are attracted to our community by the lure of the cinema who then also spend money at local shops, restaurants and gas stations while they’re in town to see a film.
When the lawsuit involving the building at Third and Main runs its course and the city inevitably takes over that property, there is an opportunity to establish a tourist plaza. Native American exhibits, a replica Conestoga wagon and other various displays that would entice and lengthen a tourist’s stay in Mitchell could be established there either as a permanent attraction in the form of statutes or as a seasonal presentation.
There are other things that could also draw tourists into the downtown corridor and throughout the city. We could use QR codes in a kind of scavenger hunt at various attractions and businesses, stamping a “passport” that could be purchased at the Corn Palace and then redeemed for some minor prize -- a Corn Palace lapel pin or some such thing. We could put smaller replicas of the Cornelius statute around town, painted in various ways, to draw tourists further into our retail sector after they’ve visited the Corn Palace.
Tourism is important. That is especially true after the difficult spring agriculture has had with flooding, and the tariff snafu with China -- not to mention the usual challenges of farming. We need our tourism industry.