Lake Mitchell ballot question latest in long line of pricey projects to be decided by city voters

May 24—MITCHELL — Mitchell voters will once again hold the fate of a large civic improvement effort in their hands when they head to the polls in June.

In July 2023, the Mitchell City Council approved public vote on a proposed $25 million loan that would fund a Lake Mitchell dredging project. That vote will take place June 4 and continue a tradition of Mitchell voters determining how public dollars are spent when it comes to improving the civic or economic health of the community.

The vote will continue a legacy of public votes dating back 20 years — and further — that has seen the public both approve and reject large-scale proposals that were to shape the future landscape of the community. By the time the June vote is complete, a Mitchell Republic analysis shows that Mitchell voters have considered nearly $81 million in community improvement projects at the ballot box in the last 20 years.

Included among those votes was the 2005 and 2007 votes concerning the construction of a convention center and event center, an indoor pool facility, as well as the recent bond vote to build new athletic facilities at the new Mitchell High School.

In 2005, there was an ongoing discussion in Mitchell. Should the city build a new convention center in conjunction with the former Holiday Inn hotel or focus its efforts on a new event center for the community?

The city of Mitchell essentially put that question to the voters when it proposed a mandatory Business Improvement District to help pay for the construction of a new convention center. Under the proposal, the voters would decide whether the city would construct a convention center in a partnership with the then-Holiday Inn for a sum not to exceed $5.8 million at a minimum cost to the city of $365,000 a year for the following 15 years.

There were strong voices in support of the project, including from the president of Mitchell Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of Mitchell community banks, along with general members of the public.

Lori Essig, then-president of the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce, compared the choice of building the convention center to the positive foresight held by city leaders who constructed the Corn Palace itself back in the 1890s. The convention center had a plan and a funding mechanism in place to pay for it, and voters should strike while the iron was hot.

But at least one group urged rejecting the convention center plan in favor of moving ahead instead with a new event center or renovating the Corn Palace. Both ideas, pushed by the group Citizens for an Event Center First, argued that such a facility would help Mitchell qualify to host more large and state-sanctioned athletic events and would be a superior economic booster compared to a convention center. In 2005, the South Dakota High School Activities Association said the Corn Palace was too small to host state any high school basketball tournaments.

The group said that the proposed convention center could host up to 11,700 annually and provide a $3 million annual impact to the local economy. An event center, on the other hand, could host up to 120,000 people annually and have an economic impact in the neighborhood of up to $20 million annually.

In the end, the public narrowly voted down the proposed convention center by a vote of 1,980 to 1,745, or 53% to 47%, losing the vote in all four city wards. Following the vote, city and community leaders considered the convention center a dead issue, though there were plans to look more into the alternative idea of an events center or improved Corn Palace.

Alice Claggett, then-mayor of Mitchell, said at the time that it was time to move on from the convention center question and focus on other issues. Local business leaders Jerry Thomsen and Jeff Krall led a plan to build a $2 million new convention center attached to hotels near Interstate 90, which became the Highland Conference Center with 5,000 square feet of floor space.

In 2007, the city of Mitchell tried again on a convention center, as the City Council advanced a plan to increase property taxes to pay for a 7,000-seat, $25 million facility along the Highway 37 bypass. Despite a large contingent of voices who wanted to see the new facility downtown, the council stuck with the bypass on the rationale that it would be cheaper to acquire and develop and had better parking.

On Sept. 18, 2007, the opposition vote was clear, with 69% saying no to the $25 million event center plan, while 31% were in support. More than 44% of city residents voted on the matter, a high turnout for a municipal special election that also saw voters maintain the cap on malt-beverage licenses at the time by about 100 votes.

Another long-discussed matter came to voters in 2015, when Mitchell voters approved spending $8 million on a new indoor pool during a special election in December. Mitchell residents circulated a petition to bring the indoor project to a vote.

Of the 2,653 votes cast in the election, 54% of the voters supported the plan to build a 22,000-square foot addition to the Mitchell Recreation Center, which included a competitive lap pool and a leisure pool.

The pool has made year-round swimming easier since it was constructed in 2018, although it has not been without issues. In 2022, the pool was abruptly shut down due to the plaster surfacing along the pool cracking. The repair work caused the facility to be closed for nine months, spanning from 2022 to April 2023.

Prior to that, another community priority was the construction of a new Mitchell High School, which the Mitchell School District had been saving for.

The current high school building, which was built in 1962, had long been seen as in need of improvement or replacement. But the COVID-19 pandemic derailed any plans the school district had in mind of keeping its costs in check.

With supply chain issues driving up the cost of labor and materials by mid-2022, the estimated cost for the new facility came in at $62,175,562, well above the roughly $42 million budget the district had set aside for the work, which would see a new high school building built across the street from the current high school on Capital Street.

The Mitchell Board of Education now had choices — utilize the funds they had on hand now and build a new high school building that included classrooms and administrative offices but no gymnasiums or other athletic facilities, delay construction indefinitely and wait for another time to build or find some way to complete the whole project, including the athletic facilities portion of the project.

The board eventually elected to put a $17 million bond issue to a vote of Mitchell School District patrons. The vote would allow the district to add the activities upgrades to the high school complex and complete the project all at once.

School bond issues had been historically difficult to pass in Mitchell and in other communities around the state. Such votes require 60% approval for passage as opposed to a simple majority and had failed in Mitchell before, including the bond issue that had built the high school building the district was in the process of trying to replace. That bond issue vote, held in 1959,

finally succeeded on its fourth try.

When the election was over, voters had approved the bond issue by a staggering margin. With 2,888 voting in favor and 634 voting against, the issue passed 82% to 18%, well over the percentage needed to pass the ballot measure.

The new high school, along with its approved athletic facilities, is currently under construction on Capital Street. Its estimated completion is set for 2025.

Now, a year on from the school bond vote, city voters will have a say in how the city proceeds in its efforts at Lake Mitchell.

Years of discussion have gone into the complex issue with it now arriving at a vote of the public on June 4. The ballot measure asks voters to decide on whether the city should issue $16.8 million in revenue bonds to fund a $25 million overall project that includes dredging the lake. Over 30 years at 3.75% interest, the total cost comes to $36.4 million. The city has proposed an annual maintenance budget of $500,000 per year for the lake in the future.

The city has more than $8 million set aside for the project and will finance the rest through a State Revolving Loan fund over 30 years with the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

As in past public votes on civic issues, at least one organization is advocating for approval. Friends of Firesteel is a group of volunteers, members, donors and partners with a vision to clean up Lake Mitchell and Firesteel Creek water quality issues with an eye also on improving recreational opportunities.

If the issue is approved by voters, water levels at the lake would be lowered sometime in late 2024 and dredging would take place throughout 2025. Officials currently expect that the lake would be dry for as long as two years. The lake would likely be refilled in 2027.

Voters will head to the polls to decide the issue, along with mayoral and City Council candidate races, on June 4.