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Sanford Center aims to foster consistency; ‘We need people to support the building,’ executive director tells business community

Georgette Bloom, convention sales manager for the Sanford Center, addresses members of the business community Tuesday as she and Curtis Webb, executive director, offered updates on the center’s schedule and staffing. MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER

BEMIDJI — Willie Nelson. The Band Perry. Kenny Rogers. The Ten Tenors.

All are coming to Bemidji to perform at the Sanford Center in the coming months.

But to build success at the center, staff said, it must develop event consistency along with the excitement of larger acts.

"We want to consistently stay in the public’s eye," Curtis Webb, Sanford Center executive director said during a gathering of Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce members Tuesday during a "Lunch ‘n’ Learn" event at Paul Bunyan Communications.

"The key for us is to drive revenue through events and create experiences for people."

Webb, entering nine months at the helm, said one of his goals for the city-owned Sanford Center is to offer not just large-scale events on occasion, but to host a steady flow of entertainment options to keep people engaged and interested in the facility, which opened in October 2010 along the south shore of Lake Bemidji.

"We want them to walk away feeling happy, excited and wanting to come back," he said.

Webb and Georgette Bloom, convention sales manager, highlighted the successes of the past year, including events held in the center’s arena and those held in the George W. Neilson Convention Center.

More than 86,000 people have visited the Sanford Center in 2013, Bloom noted.

"Can you tell me that’s not having a huge economic impact on our community?" she said.

In the past year, the Sanford Center has hosted numerous events, including Bemidji State University hockey games; Sesame Street Live; bull-riding and rodeo events; the Bemidji Jaycees Home, Sport and Travel Show; Second City Laughing Matters; a mixed martial arts "brawl," and the Michael Jackson Tribute performance.

Additionally, it hosted several conventions, including the Rotary’s annual district convention and the annual Minnesota State Fire Department Association conference, when more than 300 firefighters and 200-some family members came to Bemidji.

It also hosted high school and college graduations and 21 weddings.

And it served as the site for the two-day Minnesota Mission of Mercy, which offered free dental services to low-income and uninsured Minnesotans, providing nearly $1 million in dental care.

"Look at this list, everything from conventions to fights to hockey ... we do have something for everybody," Bloom said. "But it really does take the community to support each one of these events in one way or another."

More events on the way

The schedule also is about to get a more full, staff noted.

After hosting the "Happy Together Tour" on Tuesday night, the next large event will be the Pioneer’s Women’s Expo on Sept. 7, followed by Gordon Lightfoot on Sept. 15.

The Rocket Club performs Sept. 28 in the ballroom, which also is where Le Vent du Nord will perform Oct. 3. In the arena, Sesame Street Live’s "Elmo makes Music" arrives Oct. 4-5, and Gen-X MMA First City Brawl 2 (mixed martial arts) will be Oct. 12 in the ballroom. "The Price is Right Live" follows the next night, Oct. 13, in the arena, and Celtic Thunder comes Oct. 20.

Other upcoming acts include the Blue Man Group on Oct. 27, a Disney Live performance in November and Eddie Money in December. Kenny Rogers also is going to perform before Christmas, officials said.

The center will host The Fab Four, a Beatles tribute show planned to be a Lakeland Public Television pledge show in January. Other 2014 events already scheduled include The Ten Tenors, the Harlem Globetrotters, The Band Perry, with opening act Easton Corbin, and a performance by Willie Nelson.

"We need people to support the building," Webb said. "This isn’t my building and this isn’t VenuWorks’ building by any stretch. This is the city’s building and this is the community’s building."

He encouraged anyone with interest in a potential act or event to contact him.

"This building is here to enrich your lives," he said. "It should be a place where people can go to have a good time."

Webb said one challenge facing the Sanford Center is that area concert-goers don’t seem to jump on purchasing tickets immediately when pre-sale tickets are made available.

"We just don’t see that quick spike," he said. "If we did, promoters would look at us and say, ‘Oh wow, they’re going to sell tickets.’ We have a community that seems to wait."

Also for 2014, the center has booked 15 weddings, six conventions covering 20 days, and will continue to serve as the home for BSU hockey games as well as Bemidji’s new Indoor Football League team, which has yet to be named.

"The IFL has been a good step for us," Webb said, noting that the team is a good fit for Bemidji as it only, usually, has seven home games though the first season features eight.

He said Chris Kokalis, co-owner and president of the Bemidji team, has a strong business model based on the success of his Cedar Rapids, Iowa, team and expects him to do a good job raising public awareness and support.

"I think ... they need to get out into the community, and I think they’re going to do a phenomenal job" at that, Webb said.

Both staff members said the interest and excitement surrounding the Sanford Center will only increase as ground is broken on the long-planned Country Inn & Suites, to be attached to the events center along with a Cowboy Jack’s restaurant.

"That will be great for us," Webb said, noting that while the center does not pass on very many events due to not having an attached hotel, there are some that Bemidji just cannot bid on without one. "It just gives us a lot more flexibility."