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Sanford Center executive director ousted; Company cites violations of conduct code, professional standards

Roger Swanson

BEMIDJI - For the second time in less than a year, the Sanford Center is looking for an executive director to manage the city-owned building.

VenuWorks, contracted to manage and operate the event center for Bemidji, fired Roger Swanson on Wednesday.

Swanson, who came to Bemidji after the sudden resignation of Bob LeBarron, served as interim executive director starting last October and took over the post permanently Jan. 1.

"Mr. Swanson was dismissed for undisclosed violations of the VenuWorks code of conduct as well as not upholding VenuWorks professional standards," a VenuWorks news release said.

In the release, VenuWorks President Steven L. Peters said "VenuWorks prides itself as an upstanding and professional company and does not tolerate any conduct that does not represent VenuWorks or its employees at the Sanford Center in the best possible way."

Andy Long, regional vice president for VenuWorks, said Thursday he has been involved with the Sanford Center since its infancy. He will oversee day-to-day operations until Swanson's replacement can be found.

"This is an unfortunate situation we have to deal with," Long said.

Typically, Long works at VenuWorks' headquarters in Ames, Iowa, but this week he is in Bemidji. He plans to visit Bemidji frequently until a new executive director can be hired.

During the transition, Long said he'll rely on the Sanford Center's executive team and staff.

"The staff here has been doing a helluva job and needs to continue to do so," Long said. "We need to make sure we provide everything we can to the community."

Long did not speak in detail about Swanson's firing, but said VenuWorks had to address personnel issues and violations of code of conduct.

The dismissal was based on both internal and external factors, including inappropriate comments, he said.

Long didn't elaborate on the comments, said some were made in a social setting.

In a public position, "we still have to represent 24/7 the best interests of what's going on in the community," Long said.

Bemidji City Manager John Chattin said VenuWorks made the decision to fire Swanson.

"VenuWorks is handling the situation well," Chattin said.

Long said Chattin and city administration supported the move.

"They obviously want to make sure... we're doing the right thing and in the best interest of the city," Long said.

Some city officials were told before the decision, while others were notified before VenuWorks announced it publicly Thursday morning.

"We don't like to have these many changes going on but we have to roll with what is going on up here," Long said.

"This is a very close knit town, very tight. It's a little different style of community."

LeBarron was the unanimous choice among five candidates for the executive director when he was selected in December 2009.

The Sanford Center opened in October 2010.

When LeBarron announced his resignation last September, he remained on the job for less than two weeks.

Then VenuWorks named Swanson as interim executive director in October and given the job full-time starting in January.

The company said it has begun a national search for a replacement. Long said he would like someone selected within a month.

While it's the second shakeup in the top Sanford Center post in less than a year, Long said it takes more than one person to lead the facility.

"We have had a very consistent staff, a good staff in place," Long said.

"Our business is a very demanding and unique business," Long said. "You are working a 40-hour work week plus the events. There's a lot of time commitment and workload... There's a lot of pressure."

The management styles of LeBarron and Swanson were very different.

"Bob was a very laid-back and did things on his own," Long said. "Roger was obviously very different."

Chattin agreed and added that their departures "were completely different circumstances."

Long said VenuWorks wants to find someone who fits well in the community and has strong negotiating, recruiting and managing skills.

"Internally, we started looking," he said. "Obviously, we would love to move someone within the company.

"We'll also look nationally to make sure we find the right person for the job."

Last fall, the Bemidji City Council and the advisory board asked VenuWorks to see if Swanson would stay on as executive director after LeBarron's departure.

Earlier this year, the city called a work session to address a $21,000 dispute with VenuWorks over Swanson's salary while he was interim director.

VenuWorks submitted an invoice Dec. 31 asking the city to pay $21,000 for Swanson's salary. However, the city objected over the billing, arguing Steve Peters, president/owner of VenuWorks, promised in an October 2011 meeting that the company would cover the salary.

Also, at an Oct. 11 meeting, Peters requested a $194,000 cash advance for VenuWorks, stating the company was committed to meeting a $417,000 projected deficit and noted "VenuWorks is covering Mr. Swanson's salary" while he was serving as the facility's interim executive director.

VenuWorks has since repaid the cash advance granted by the city.

"Our relationship with the city, I think, is a good one," Long said Thursday. "There are several points where we've had disagreements or points that weren't communicated very well."

Despite the disputes, Chattin signaled support Thursday for VenuWorks.

"I think over the last year you could always do a better job, but I think they are doing a pretty good job," Chattin said.

Citing employee privacy, Long said he couldn't discuss whether Swanson received a severance package.

However, he said the city's budget will be unaffected.

"There's nothing that will impact the budget, from a financial standpoint, here," Long said.

Swanson, who did not answer his cell phone or return a message seeking comment, was unaware VenuWorks planned to fire him, Long said.

"He took it very well, professionally," Long said.

"Roger did a great job in kicking up the advertising and sponsorship sales up here and ... fine tuning a lot of things that needed to be taken care of...

"As much as I would like to sugarcoat it... it is what it is. Roger is a great friend of mine and I wish him nothing but the best."

When he was named Sanford Center executive director, Swanson had more than 25 years of facility management experience. He spent 23 years working in Alaska.

Prior to coming to Bemidji, Swanson served as VenuWorks' director of business development, concentrating on sponsorships, signage and naming rights sales in Bemidji and Evansville, Ind.

In 2010, Swanson worked in Grand Forks, N.D., when VenuWorks managed the city-owned Alerus Center.

According to a Sept. 3, 2010, article in the Grand Forks Herald, Swanson stepped down less than five months after taking the Alerus Center executive director's job.

At the time, VenuWorks Senior Vice President Doug Kuhnel told the Herald that Swanson wanted to spend more time with his family in the Twin Cities area.

When Swanson arrived in Grand Forks in early April 2010, he said a top priority was to bring back concerts to the Alerus Center and rebuild the local concert market, which had not offered strong support to the few concerts VenuWorks brought in up to then, the Herald reported.

Swanson was the fourth of five executive directors at the Grand Forks facility between 2001 and 2011.

In late 2011, the Alerus Center Commission voted to end its relationship with VenuWorks. The Grand Forks City Council then hired 18 full-time VenuWorks employees as contracted city workers starting Jan. 1.

Steve Wagner

Grand Forks Herald Editor Steve Wagner can be reached at 701.780.1104 and He joined the Herald in April 2013, and previously worked as editor at the Bemidji (Minn.) Pioneer and in several roles -- including news director, investigative reporter and crime reporter - at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. His reporting experience includes coverage of Dru Sjodin's disappearance and the federal death penalty case for her murderer, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., along with several investigative projects. In his spare time, Wagner is an avid runner and occasionally writes about his experiences on his blog, Addicted to Running.

(701) 780-1104