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The sun sets over Buffalo Bay on the Manitoba portion of Lake of the Woods during a January 2011 ice fishing excursion. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

2019 brings mixed results for region's tourism destinations

The Corn Palace may border on kitschy. After all, a marketing video openly uses puns like “a-maize-ing” and asks if quizzical visitors are “corn-fused.”

But situated in Mitchell, S.D., it routinely siphons off Interstate 90 motorists on the way to places such as the Black Hills and Yellowstone National Park. Its numbers rise when tourism conditions are good, and they tend to dip when uncontrollable events — flooding on the plains to the east, or fires in the mountains to the west — inevitably arise.

The Corn Palace's trademark feature is the intricate artwork on its walls, made of locally grown corn, and an ornate series of colorful domes on its roof. Originally built more than a century ago to showcase the region's agricultural potential, it was completely revamped in recent years and now features more visitor-friendly amenities, especially after a side street was permanently closed to better accommodate viewing.

It is free to see and located just minutes off I-90. As such, the Corn Palace could be considered a good measuring stick for tourism health in South Dakota.

“Look at the beginning of tourism season, and all of the flooding taking place in other areas, near Omaha and Kansas City,” said Sonya Moller, director of the Chamber and Visitors Bureau of Mitchell. “I think we had a slow start to the tourism season for the state. … I think for Mitchell tourism, I would say it was steady. When you look at the Corn Palace numbers, it tells us there may be a little drop, but all in all, it’s holding its own.”

According to data from the Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau, visitation during the Corn Palace’s busy months — May, June and July — is slightly down from last year. This year, 164,330 visitors came through the Corn Palace in those key months, down 1.4% from 2018’s 166,639.

"I truly think having interstates closed (due to flooding) at the beginning of the year makes a big difference. We have seen it in years past, too," said Moller. "Things that are out of our control do affect our tourism."

The slight decline at the Corn Palace mirrors a similar trend at various tourism sites throughout the Dakotas and Minnesota.

Mount Rushmore, in South Dakota’s Black Hills, is showing slightly fewer visitors during the busy summer months, but appears on track to still finish the year near its average.

Visitation from May to July this year in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota was down about 8%.

At Minnesota's Itasca State Park, where the Mississippi River begins, visitation during May-June this year was down roughly 6%.

For the first half of the year at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Bismarck, there was a 3.6% decrease.

Elsewhere, some tourist sites have seen modest increases, whether in actual turnstile counts or — when hard data isn’t available — via anecdotal evidence.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

This year, more than 383,000 people have visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park, spending more than 1.3 million hours exploring the park’s buttes and badlands or checking out the bison, prairie dogs and wild horses that roam the two units. That’s slightly under year-to-date numbers from last year, when more than 427,600 people visited.

The park’s busiest months are May, June and July.

In May 2019, about 76,300 people visited TRNP, down from May 2018's total of 84,500. In June 2019, there were 135,200 visitors, compared with 133,100 in June 2018. In July 2019, just over 150,000 people visited TRNP, compared with the approximately 176,900 who visited in July 2018.

Comparing May-June-July numbers shows an 8% decrease from 2018 to 2019.

Visitation numbers have been up at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in recent years. Since 2013, visitor numbers have gone up nearly every year, including a more than 170,000 spike in attendance from 2015 to 2016, when park numbers shot up from 580,033 to 753,880. That number was closely tied with the National Park System celebrating its 100th birthday.

In 2018, nearly 750,000 people visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park, up from 2017, when 708,000 visited the park. TRNP’s all time record is nearly a million visitors in 1972, when 998,849 people passed through the country’s only national park named after a president.

International Peace Garden

The International Peace Garden, which straddles the U.S.-Canadian border in north-central North Dakota, hosts more than 30,000 visitors each year.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase this year,” said Lori Scheirlinck, administrative assistant.

Melinda Goodman, director of marketing and communications, said, “We will easily have more than 30,000 (visitors) this year. We’ve had several record-breaking weekends.”

An increased emphasis on public relations efforts and several new events — such as a “triathlon weekend,” 5K and kids’ runs, and Smokey the Bear’s 75th birthday party — have attracted more visitors to the site, which was dedicated in 1932 as a testament to the friendship between these two nations.

Goodman, who joined the IPC in March, uses social media messaging to highlight outdoor recreational features and tout the venue as a family-friendly site with lots of activities for kids.

“People think of our formal gardens, but social media is helping people to know what to do at the Peace Garden,” Goodman said. “We have hiking trails, kids’ play areas, two lakes where you can bring a kayak, and a conservatory.”

"We want to make sure people know this is a place for everyone," she said.

Bismarck

The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan are seeing what the site manager considers a slight decrease in visitors this year. There were 71,193 visitors from January to July in 2018, with 68,603 visitors during the same time frame in 2019. The figures represent a 3.6% decrease.

"Deviations in our visitation can be attributed to a wide variety of factors — weather, fuel prices, marketing trends, etc.," said Kevin Kirkey, site manager for the destination, which largely attracts a national audience.

"One variation of note for the current year is that we saw a larger-than-average change in the number of organized student visitations. Our school group visitation is down about 20%," Kirkey said, noting that because the facility is part of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, visitors are drawn from every state and an average of 37 foreign countries as they retrace the route of the two early explorers.

Lake of the Woods

In Lake of the Woods County in extreme northern Minnesota, visitation numbers aren’t easily tracked. However, the resort industry has seen a slow but steady increase in gross sales and sales tax revenue in recent years. In 2017, the most recent year for which numbers are available, resort establishments in Lake of the Woods County had $26.7 million in gross sales, $19.7 million in taxable sales, and the county collected $1.4 million in sales tax revenues from those establishments, Explore Minnesota reported in its 2017 Resort and Sales & Use Tax Statistics Report.

By comparison, Lake of the Woods County resort establishments in 2014 had $24.5 million in gross sales, $18.4 million in taxable sales and about $1.3 million in sales tax revenues, according to Explore Minnesota.

Lake of the Woods has about 30 resorts.

Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism, said there’s been a steady increase at least since 2011, when he took the tourism reins.

Nowhere is the increase more apparent than in the winter. Statistics from the Minnesota Natural Resources show anglers logged 2 million hours of ice fishing pressure on Lake of the Woods each of the past two winters. By comparison, winter pressure during the 1990s ranged from about 643,000 angler-hours to 925,000 angler-hours, the DNR said.

Good fishing and a well-established resort infrastructure in both summer and winter drive the trend, Henry said.

“It’s a very special natural resource,” he said. “We’re a long ways from most populations, but people come here because it’s so special. That’s created quite the resort community. We wouldn’t have the number of resorts up here if they weren’t doing well.”

Lake of the Woods Tourism doesn't tally specific visitor numbers, said Henry, relying instead on lodging tax receipts.

“That’s where the rubber hits the road,” he said.

Itasca State Park

The source of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park sees considerable tourism each summer.

This year, the traditional summer season got off to a bit slower start. In May-June of 2019, there were 135,570 visitors at Itasca, compared with 144,534 in the same two-month span last year. That’s a decrease of 8,964 visitors, or 6.2%.

Most Minnesota Department of Natural Resources sites have updated their July 2019 numbers, but Itasca’s numbers have yet to be added to the state data system.

Lake Superior

Each year, about 500,000 visitors tour the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center in Duluth. This year, 328,933 people had toured the museum at the foot of the Aerial Lift Bridge as of late August, said Sara Summers-Luedtke, visitor center interim director. Summers-Luedtke expects the museum will exceed 500,000 visitors this year.

“We had some large events in the city that brought in more tourists,” she said.

Mount Rushmore

Visitor numbers are down slightly at Mount Rushmore National Monument this year, according to statistics compiled by the National Parks Service.

In May, June and July this year, Mount Rushmore had 1.4 million visitors, down from 1.6 million in those months the previous year. However, Mount Rushmore sees visitors throughout the year and is still on track for a good year.

The 1,278-acre park has had an average of 2.278 million visitors per year over the last decade. Maureen McGee-Ballinger, the park’s chief of interpretation and education, said the park is on pace for more than 2.3 million guests by the end of 2019. Last year, there were 2.31 million visitors.

“Some years are just quieter,” McGee-Ballinger said. She figures rainy weather and construction at the park may have added to the lull.

Numbers also were down for the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally this year, which McGee-Ballinger said generally adds to Mount Rushmore's tourism. She said she expects to see a bump in numbers at the park next year because the Sturgis rally is celebrating its 80th anniversary.

Terry Redlin Center

According to Julie Ranum at the Redlin Art Center in Watertown, S.D., visitor numbers for the summer are up over last year's numbers.

“So far this year, we are trending up, which is surprising to us because we had a long, harsh winter and a difficult spring,” Ranum said in an email.

She attributes the increase in visitors to this summer's weather. People who may be in town on a fishing or camping excursion need somewhere to go on rainy days, she said.

“When the campgrounds are chilly and wet, campers visit the Redlin Art Center,” she wrote.

The 52,000-square-foot Redlin Art Center houses more than 150 original works of American oil painter Terry Redlin. Admission is free.