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SD's Corn Palace says it learned a lesson as drought nearly ditches mural plans

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Farmer Wade Strand, of Mitchell, is contracted by the city of Mitchell for the corn used for the Corn Palace murals. Strand said about six weeks ago he wasn't sure if there would be corn to harvest to replace out the murals, but said things have picked up in recent weeks with the rain and anticipates having enough corn. Matt Gade / Forum News Service2 / 4
Pieces of corn are missing or just hang from parts of the Corn Palace Elvis mural. Matt Gade / Forum News Service3 / 4
Wade Strand shows an ear of black corn that has just started to turn from his field of corn that will be used to replace the current murals on the Corn Palace. Matt Gade / Forum News Service4 / 4

MITCHELL, S.D.—A summer scare for Mitchell's top tourist destination was narrowly avoided.

Despite an excessively dry summer, Corn Palace Director Scott Schmidt said the city will have enough corn to decorate the nine corn murals surrounding the World's Only Corn Palace.

While the city voluntarily skipped redecoration of the murals in 2016, it hadn't faced a drought scare since 2012. And with approximately 275,000 ears of corn needed for the building, coupled with the dilapidation of the 2-year-old murals adorning the building, Schmidt was relieved when a recent rain saved the day.

"After we got that inch and a quarter of rain two or three weeks ago, our corn really took to that rain," Schmidt said last week.

Schmidt said a backup plan hadn't been seriously considered, but ideas had been floated about making due with less colors or seeking out farmers other than Wade Strand to provide the corn crop. Fortunately for Schmidt and the city of Mitchell, Mother Nature came through.

"There was a small enough scare as to wondering what we were going to have to do if we had to go a third year," Schmidt said. "To me, it definitely put a value on the importance of making sure you go through the right process of having to decorate every single year, because you can't plan on a drought."

In 2012, before a $4.7 million renovation to the building, "A Schucking Disaster," at the Corn Palace gained national attention when it was highlighted on The Colbert Report as the city of Mitchell worried it would not be able to replace the murals for the first time since 2006.

The city was ultimately able to replace the murals that year with eight colors of corn, a situation that lingered in the minds of Palace workers as they decorated other portions of the building this summer.

But the city will have enough corn to replace the aging music-themed murals with weather-related murals, much to joy of Mitchell City Councilwoman Susan Tjarks.

"This is a huge relief," Tjarks said in an email. "So good to know that we will have new murals very soon!"

The new murals will be placed alongside the building following the late-August Corn Palace Festival. Considering the murals' condition after being left on the building two years instead of one — a cost-cutting directive from Mayor Jerry Toomey — Tjarks said the city learned an "important lesson."

"We need to decorate the murals every single year as long as we have the crop to support it," Tjarks said. "If, in a crisis, we are unable to decorate due to a bad year for corn, we can rest assured that we decorated the previous year."

Earlier this year, Schmidt provided an estimated cost of $115,152 for Palace decorating in 2017. But Tjarks said any funds saved when the murals were not replaced were not worth the "unsightly murals."

Tjarks called the building a "community icon," and the city has invested plenty of funds in recent years to improve the overall appearance of the attraction.

Since the $4.7 million renovation, the city budgeted $876,000 to complete a grassy plaza immediately south of the building on North Main Street, which is set for an official opening in September. And if a drought limited the variety of colors that could be used to decorate the murals, visitors to the new plaza would have been met by less vibrant murals.

While the city received good news this year, Tjarks looked back at the decision against decorating the murals in 2016 with regret.

"It is unfortunate that the council and Scott (Schmidt) did not have input into the decision that was made to not decorate a year ago," Tjarks said. "I'm certain the council would have voted against skipping a year."

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