MITCHELL, S.D.-After millions of dollars' worth of investment, the stars have aligned for an excellent tourism season at the World's Only Corn Palace.
A visit to the Corn Palace is always a unique experience - it is the only attraction of its kind, after all. But the corn-adorned building has accumulated more features in the last few years, from an education center and art gallery on the second floor to new domes and turrets along the structure's roof.
Those improvements came at a cost, a total of $14,424,904 worth of expenses at the Palace over the last five years. But was it worth the investment?
Mitchell Area Convention & Visitors Bureau Director Katie Knutson says the current photographs of the building make it an easier sell to potential tourists. And with the Palace sporting a new look, plus the added bonus of last season's Sixth Avenue plaza construction out of the way, Knutson is excited about the upcoming tourism season in Mitchell.
"We are expecting a really great year, even with the finishing of Burr Street construction," Knutson said.
While the possibility of a strong tourism year hangs in the balance, there is good news for the new year. Despite the major investments, Corn Palace expenses dropped in 2017, hitting a five-year low of $1,966,095, according to the city of Mitchell finance office. Despite lowered expenses, there's no doubt the Corn Palace experience has improved in the last few months.
Since the start of September, a new set of corn murals was installed, a large corn sculpture was added at the building's southwestern edge, and perhaps most importantly, a large park space was officially opened for the public to enjoy immediately south of the Palace.
Corn Palace Director Scott Schmidt feels as though those new additions to the Palace also make it more of an appealing event center.
"You walk across the street and you see the Corn Palace Plaza and the Corn Palace sign, you see the new domes, you see it lit up, it looks like an actual event center now," he said. "It doesn't look like a building with corn on it in the middle of downtown."
With features both new and old, Schmidt is aiming to match or beat last year's visitor total.
The new year will also provide the city an opportunity to test the typical tourist season.
In 2017, the Corn Palace implemented a new system to count the number of tourists entering the building, which tracks all the visitors who enter the front doors rather than just those who walk through the old-school turnstiles. With that in mind, Schmidt said measuring 2017 versus 2016 is like comparing apples to oranges.
But Schmidt will be able to compare 2017 to 2018, and he says a successful tourism season would match 2017's 249,155 visitor count from May to August.
Between the new additions and the end of construction just off Interstate 90, Schmidt is anticipating high numbers for 2018.
Mitchell Councilman Jeff Smith, who serves as the council's representative on the Corn Palace Events & Entertainment Board, is also interested to learn the true attendance to the building through the new electronic monitoring system.
"That's always nice to be able to measure, now we need to get somewhat of a normal year or two to kind of see what the base is," Smith said.
As visitor numbers rise and expenses drop, the city's return on investment has yet to be seen in its sales tax collections.
First and second penny sales tax collections in Mitchell stagnated in 2017, rising only 0.02 percent over 2016's collections. But the 2 percent sales tax collected in both 2016 and 2017 was lower than 2015's total, and only slightly higher than 2014. The entertainment tax - which is collected from hotel rentals, restaurant sales and sales of alcoholic beverages - also dropped in 2017 by 0.39 percent.
The drop in entertainment tax collections coincided with the city's decision not to replace the Corn Palace's signature murals for the 2017 tourism season and Corn Palace Plaza construction.
The reduction in entertainment tax collections, however, was quite small, and the city's two longest-tenured Mitchell City Council members are optimistic about the recent changes at the building.
Longtime Mitchell City Councilman Marty Barington has been one of the Corn Palace's biggest proponents over the years, often framing the Palace as the best means to draw people into his hometown. With the recent improvements to the Corn Palace grounds and facade, Barington is looking forward to what 2018 will bring.
"We've got to have a structure like this," Barington said last week. "We've got to use it in more ways than one. It's not just our event center, it's also our icon and our tourist attraction."
He's not the only one excited about the year.
Earlier in the week, Knutson was in North Carolina promoting bus tours to Mitchell, and she said photos of the new and improved Palace help pique more interest.
With the new murals and added green space - as well as manageable gas prices for those on road trips - Knutson said the city is in line for a strong year of tourism.
And while Barington is satisfied with the changes at the attraction and event center in recent years, he sees more room for improvement at the Palace.
Barington said he'd like to see more investment into the Corn Palace Education Center, a corn-themed room that sits atop Council Chambers on the second floor of Mitchell City Hall geared toward teaching children about corn and agriculture. He also sees an opportunity for southward expansion of the Corn Palace Plaza.
In January, the city voted to tear down the building that formerly served as the home to the Jitters Coffeehouse, which sits a stone's throw from the Palace plaza. The city also purchased the longtime home to NorthWestern Energy's Mitchell office, which sits even closer to the plaza.
Discussions to extend the plaza haven't advanced publicly, but Barington sees room to make the park space south of the Palace even better for those in the community.
"I think that Sixth street plaza is just an ideal location for it, for the people that come into our community every year," Barington said. "... And I would like us to keep expanding on it and adding things to it."
Although he wasn't entirely certain to what extent the plaza could be improved, past city meetings have indicated a performance stage could be one major addition or a large shade structure could be included.
Both Barington and Smith, who have served on the council since 2006, see a bright future for the Corn Palace. Smith spoke particularly well of the new plaza, which he said has earned rave reviews throughout the state and adds to the Corn Palace's ability to serve as an event center as well as a tourist attraction.
"I have just heard nothing but positive comments on how well it looks and how well it's presented, and even people from South Dakota that's outside of Mitchell, they've even commented to me that they're so impressed with how that area is coming together," Smith said. "So it's going to be kind of fun to see how that evolves down there."