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Austin Wallestad of Bemidji adds a little ketchup to his Stittsworth brat Tuesday afternoon at Stittsworth Meats' new location, 716 Paul Bunyan Drive NW. Stittsworth Meats, a longtime Jaycees' supporter, has been told it can no longer be a vendor in the Bemidji Jaycees Home, Sports and Travel Show because the Sanford Center will not allow food vendors with products that compete directly with the offerings in its own concession stands. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

New Sanford Center policy means longtime vendor Stittsworth Meats won't be at Jaycees show

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A Sanford Center policy has resulted in the exclusion of a longtime Jaycees supporter from the Bemidji Jaycees' Home, Sports and Travel Show as a vendor.

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Stittsworth Meats, which specializes in premium meat cuts and bratwursts, would have marked its 20th straight year as a vendor in the annual event. But the business was informed last month that it no longer can be a vendor in the show.

The Sanford Center will not allow food vendors who sell products that compete with its own concession stands.

"We have a responsibility to the city to try to mitigate as much of the subsidy as we can," said Roger Swanson, executive director of the Sanford Center.

The Sanford Center is owned by the city of Bemidji, which has hired VenuWorks - Swanson's employer - to manage the facility. The center operates at a deficit and requires a subsidy from the city, which for 2012 was set at $400,000.

"The bottom line is that VenuWorks is hired to maximize the revenues for the events center," said John Chattin, city manager. "We will support them in whatever they do that maximizes the revenue."

Swanson said the policy is not just VenuWorks-wide but an industry standard.

Char Blashill, the Jaycees' chairwoman for the show, said she was told in December that the policy had been changed.

"I don't think it's fair," she said. "I'm renting that building for the entire weekend. I don't think it's fair that they have policies that dictate who we can and cannot have."

The show last year had seven food vendors and this year could have as many as eight, Blashill said, if the policy is relaxed. Stittsworth Meats, however, became the focus of the ban after angry customers went online to CraigsList to vent, which led to multiple Facebook postings and, then, to a Facebook page dedicated to reversing the decision.

"I'm pretty surprised," said Mychal Stittsworth, whose employees are all Jaycees members. "I can't believe how many people are making comments. A lot of people come into the store and are asking us about it every day."

He appreciates the community support.

"(I was) very disappointed," he said of the policy change. "It's kind of our shot in the arm coming out of the wintertime."

The Home, Sport and Travel Show will mark its 35th show when it opens March 30. It moved to the Sanford Center last year from the John Glas Fieldhouse, a move that provided ample space to bring in additional vendors, including Corner Sports, which prior to last year had stopped taking part because there wasn't enough room to display boats.

The vendor situation wasn't an issue last year, Swanson said, because the former executive director, Bob LeBarron, at that time opted to close all of the Sanford Center's concessions stands during the show.

"That was a grave error," Swanson said.

If everyone who attended the show last year had purchased only a Coke, Swanson said, that would have generated $20,000 for the Sanford Center.

"The event center is a business," Chattin said. "The less revenue that is brought in by the event center, the higher the subsidy that all citizens of the city have to provide. VenuWorks is trying to maximize the revenues for the facility and we appreciate that."

Swanson said the Jaycees may allow food vendors who do not sell competing products, such as tacos, but Blashill said the Jaycees at this time are not considering that.

"I kind of took the stand that it's either all or none," she said. "I don't think it's fair that two of my vendors that have been there for 20 years aren't allowed to be there."

Swanson and Stittsworth met last week, at which time Swanson offered to allow Stittsworth Meats in the show if the company paid 35 percent of its show profits to the Sanford Center.

"I don't think that's fair," Stittsworth said. "I couldn't agree to that."

The issue will likely come to a head Tuesday during the Sanford Center Advisory Board meeting.

"I'm just planning to ask them to compromise and (have the vendors) be grandfathered in," Blashill said. "It is a community event center and this show showcases local businesses."

While a handful of people online have called for a boycott of the Home, Sport and Travel Show, Stittsworth is advising against it, noting that the Jaycees are not causing the issue.

"The point we're trying to make is that Jaycees rent the building," he said. "It's their building for the weekend."

Blashill said no vendors have told her that they would not take part in the show because of the issue, but noted that there are registrations that she has not yet seen.

"I don't know how the community will react to this," she said, adding that residents are known to band together. "If something doesn't feel right, they stand up for each other."

Despite the disagreement, everyone involved said they still respect one another. The relationship between Stittsworth and the Sanford Center goes back to 2010, when the Sanford Center sold Stittsworth meats in its concessions stands.

"We love their product," Swanson said.

But that arrangement was halted once they learned that Stittsworth needed a USDA license to do wholesaling. Stittsworth now is not licensed to wholesale its products to another venue, such as the Sanford Center or a grocery store, which then would sell it to the public.

Stittsworth said he is close to obtaining that license, which includes the mandate for an on-staff inspector who observes the production process. Last summer he was about 90 percent of the way there, Stittsworth said, but a new inspector has pointed out additional cosmetic work that must be done before the licensure process can continue.

Both Swanson and Stittsworth said they would gladly revisit the previous arrangement once the USDA license is granted.

"We'd love to have them here once he's properly licensed," Swanson said. "We never wanted him to leave."

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