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Mayor's Corn Palace mural plan met with mixed response

MITCHELL, S.D. - Mayor Jerry Toomey's proposal to change the Corn Palace murals every other year is receiving mixed reviews from his fellow elected officials.

The current theme of the Corn Palace murals is Rock of Ages. (Matt Gade/Republic)
The current theme of the Corn Palace murals is Rock of Ages. (Matt Gade/Republic)

MITCHELL, S.D. - Mayor Jerry Toomey's proposal to change the Corn Palace murals every other year is receiving mixed reviews from his fellow elected officials.

Last week, Toomey announced his intention to keep the current Corn Palace murals up for a second consecutive year due to conflicting work schedules between the mural replacement and the upcoming construction on the Sixth Avenue plaza. But Toomey said the ultimate goal - if the murals don't lose their luster - would be to change the murals every other year as a cost-saving measure.

While Toomey's proposal to display the existing murals for another year has earned council-wide support considering the potential competition for work space between the two projects, at least two councilmen stand by the city's tradition to change the murals annually.

One of those in favor of changing the murals each year is longtime Councilman Marty Barington. Barington said he hasn't received any calls from his constituents on the matter, but he'd like to continue to attract the repeat visitors who look forward to seeing the murals each year.

"Right now, if it wasn't for the Sixth Street project, I'd probably be saying I'd want to hear what the people of the community have to say," Barington said Friday. "But I'm in favor of changing it on a yearly basis."

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Barington said this year provides a good opportunity to test the durability of the murals over a two-year period, but he's curious what the the current "Rock of Ages" themed murals will look like come 2017.

"I'm good for a trial run, but like I said, I'm more of an every year kind of guy," Barington said.

Councilman Mel Olson joined Barington in support of the annual mural replacement, but he also understands the logic of keeping the current murals in place for another year. But because the Corn Palace murals help attract 250,000 to 300,000 people per year according to Olson, he said he wouldn't want to see the mayor's decision become a standard policy.

"Now this year, of course, when it's really not going to be possible to do two things at one time, rip up the plaza and redecorate, it makes sense," Olson said. "I don't think it makes sense going forward. I think it's pennywise and pound foolish."

Going forward, Olson said, the city will need to consider what the Corn Palace is to the city of Mitchell when deciding whether to replace the murals each year. If the Corn Palace is simply a basketball arena, Olson asked, "Why decorate it?" But if it's part of the city's marketing strategy to attract people from Interstate 90, then he said the city should continue to invest in the murals.

After speaking with people who currently work at the Corn Palace and those who once worked at the city's major attraction about the amount of visitors who return to Mitchell's Main Street each year to see the new murals, Olson thinks changing the murals annually is the way to go.

Olson also brought up the thought that a drought could keep the same murals on the Corn Palace for more than two years.

"If you do have a drought, it's not two years, it's three years," Olson said. "And since this really is a marquee for the city, I think it's worth the investment to have it look good."

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Councilwoman Susan Tjarks has also heard mixed reviews on the mayor's decision, particularly from one out-of-town guest who visits Mitchell regularly and enjoys seeing the new mural designs. But Tjarks also heard some Mitchell residents speak in favor of the plan due to the cost savings.

Last year, the city paid approximately $157,000 to redecorate the building's exterior in a year when the Corn Palace's expenses topped its revenues by $425,541.

While Tjarks understands both sides, she said she would have liked to have received notice before the decision was announced. Even if the decision needed to be made immediately to inform the farmer who grows the corn used on the murals, Tjarks would have preferred some warning.

"If that were the case, then I do understand the need for immediacy, but it would have been nice to have at least been informed and not have to read it in the paper knowing people would have questions," Tjarks wrote to The Daily Republic in an email.

Other council members said they were fine with the mayor's decision.

Last week, Councilman Jeff Smith and Councilwoman Bev Robinson weighed in on the plan, with both saying they understood the need to have a discussion do to the cost associated with operating the Corn Palace.

On Friday, Councilman Dave Tronnes said he had no major concerns with the decision this year due to the conflict with the Sixth Avenue project and Councilman Steve Rice said his major concern regarding any contractual issues with the corn grower and mural designers have been addressed.

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