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Our View: Selection goes beyond perception

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News this past week out of the Sanford Center, the city-owned event center, came as a surprise to many Bemidji residents.

Roger Swanson, fired from the executive director's post with barely seven months under his belt, was brought here by VenuWorks to improve the center's bottom line.

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VenuWorks, which manages and operates the facility on the city's behalf, heralded Swanson as the replacement to Bob LeBarron, who unexpectedly resigned from the post last October.

The company said Swanson's strengths, based on more than 25 years in facility management, would help boost advertising and sponsorship revenues at the Sanford Center.

Swanson, surrounded by a good team of managers and support staff, certainly did enough to remove the word "interim" from his title at the start of 2012.

However, VenuWorks cited violations of its code of conduct, along with lapses in professional standards, in dismissing Swanson.

Those are pretty strong words.

In Bemidji, and markets elsewhere, the public is told that facility management is a unique industry, fraught with perils and risks within the entertainment world. Effective leaders are required to be gifted negotiators and recruiters to deal with celebrities and promoters.

They also need to engage the community, focus on the positive and exhibit exemplary leadership and management skills. In short, substance matters, but so does style.

The turnover at the top of the Sanford Center - with two executive directors leaving in less than 11 months - raises eyebrows, but it is not enough to wish for a do-over.

The event center has been a positive addition to the Bemidji area, offering a modern and comfortable venue for Bemidji State University hockey, trade shows, concerts, meetings and more.

Could the Sanford Center provide more offerings and opportunities? Without a doubt. Could it appeal to a wider audience? Absolutely. Have there been some hiccups since its opening? Yes.

The city of Bemidji has a lot of stake - and could be dealing with more than a perception problem if the next executive director doesn't stay longer than a few months.

VenuWorks officials understand it must perform and protect the best interests of the city. It's in the company's long-term interest to make the right hire by selecting a person who fits into the community and can juggle the demands and pressure of a tough industry.

Sanford Center employees - the people who pay attention to the details and make it an enjoyable place to visit - work long hours. They care about the venue's success and the community's perception of it.

The city and VenuWorks haven't always agreed and there have been minor controversies in the less than two years since the Sanford Center opened.

Selecting the right person as the next Sanford Center executive director may not be easy. But it is important to get it right.

That's something the city, VenuWorks and the people who hold them both responsible - residents - can agree.

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