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story.lead_photo.caption The entrance to the Missouri State Penitentiary. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

Fans of the Missouri State Penitentiary numbered at least three-quarters of a million in 2016, or so Google says.

Lots of those fans came to Jefferson City to tour the decommissioned prison — night, day and in all degrees of weather. A record 32,811 paying customers visited MSP in 2016, such is the allure of hardship, death and despair inside the walls of an unforgiving monument to crime and punishment.

The board of the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors' Bureau — caretaker, promoter and champion of the tourism attraction — learned Thursday it wasn't an accident all those folks found their way to East Capitol Avenue from throughout the nation and the world. The internet, it turns out, had a lot to do with it.

Google Analytics shows the MSP website had 776,308 visitors in 2016, with 32,165 visitors in December and another 70,345 in November, Google reports.

The 2016 results offer a case study in marketing science. In 2015, when Google reported the MSP site had 505,022 visitors, MSP had 25,927 bodies pass through its gates in the paying customer category.

Katherine Reed, CVB communications director, said the correlation between the MSP marketing budget and internet hits has been obvious since the Missouri Office of Administration and the CVB entered the agreement for management of the prison a couple of years ago, when the marketing budget grew exponentially.

The same surge in visitors exists for the MSP Museum, housed in the Col. Darwin W. Marmaduke House, where the CVB is headquartered. The museum had 6,827 visitors in 2016 compared to 2,038 in the previous year.

There were big swings in month-by-month attendance at MSP, with 5,825 visitors in October and 5,823 in July. The prison was closed in January and February 2016. Attendance fell to only 70 last month after 2,776 people were there the previous month, Reed said.

She also pointed to the 359,316 people who contacted the CVB website in 2016, up from 328,039 in 2015.

MSP visitors in 2017 are sure to notice major upgrades in the lighting, CVB Executive Director Diane Gillespie reported. Meyer Electric has completed $16,492 of enhancements, including dimmer switches "to allow us to dim lights for the ghost tours and other events that could be held in (unit four) in the future," Gillespie said.

Gillespie's efforts in January, she reported, also included working with Historic City of Jefferson on a Capitol Avenue walking tour brochure, updating the MSP brochure, updating the CVB Visitor Guide with a new map, and ordering materials for welcome bags, Solar Eclipse glasses, and a new welcome banner for trade shows and events.

The CVB's athletic events committee fundraiser is set for Friday at the Eagles Lodge. Chris Wilson, the CVB sports and film sales manager, reported the event, featuring celebrity emcees Bill Deeken and Greg Gaffke, is almost a sellout.

The CVB also is working on events including the 10th annual Jefferson City Ice Bowl on Saturday; Total Eclipse of the Katy Bicycle Ride, Aug. 20, from Rocheport to North Jefferson City; and the fifth annual Capital City Corvette Classic, May 12-13.

Reed expects the schedule of CVB-hosted events to be available next week — featuring a second Inside the Walls concert at MSP.

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