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Sanford Center executive director search moves forward

BEMIDJI – The company managing the city-owned Sanford Center said it wants to have a new executive director in place by October.

Andy Long, regional vice president for VenuWorks and interim operations manager until a replacement is hired, said Monday during a Sanford Center Advisory Board meeting that the company has received a handful of solid resumes for the job.

The interview process will begin after a nationwide posting for the position expires this month.

The goal is to have the new director start Oct. 1 “if we can pull this off,” Long said.

VenuWorks, contracted by Bemidji to operate and manage the event center, fired Roger Swanson for personnel reasons Aug. 8.

In addition, Long said he’ll rely on facility directors to keep the center operating smoothly while he focuses on the 2013 budget.

“I’m very impressed and happy with the staff in place,” Long said Monday.

He also didn’t rule out hiring an internal candidate for the executive director position.

Advisory board members questioned whether Long’s salary as interim director would come out of the Sanford Center budget. Long said his salary was a corporate expense and wouldn’t affect the center’s budget.

In addition, much of the talk by board members focused on adding events, including larger concerts, to the calendar.

Long said Swanson was doing his best to book shows.

“There’s a challenge across the country getting acts in,” Long said.

Bemidji City Manager John Chattin said the current staff can manage the building and he’d like to see more shows.

“Someone has to be the boss,” Chattin said. “Their real function is to fill the building… that’s what we really need.”

Ken Howe also said he wasn’t concerned with day-to-day operations.

“There just needs to be more activity,” he said.

Board members shared concerns about public perception regarding the Sanford Center, number of events and executive director turnover.

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.

VenuWorks didn’t expect turnover when LeBarron was hired as the center’s first executive director, Long said. The company’s goal is to find someone committed to a five-year term at the facility, he said.

“We want someone fitting into the community,” Long said.

looking back, moving ahead

In other business, the advisory board also reviewed the 2012 budget.

Long said the facility is currently about $40,000 over budget.

“I feel comfortable we will be able to bring that in line” with projections and five months remaining in the budget, he said. “Everyone is trimming down and cutting where they can.”

The city’s 2013 subsidy for the event center is projected at $371,691, which includes plans for 24 Bemidji State University men’s hockey games and 22 women’s games, one large concert, 10 small concerts or family shows and 18 days of conferences.

The board also discussed the center’s strengths and weaknesses while assessing opportunities and threats.

Much of the discussion focused on what can be done to bring in more events, particularly ones that appeal to large numbers of people, and how to keep event costs reasonable.

“I think we’re missing the point somehow,” said Ron Johnson, a board member and City Council member. “There are acts moving around.”

Long said there’s tremendous risk in the concert business. “You’re risking a huge amount of money to make a little,” he said.

Staff is looking for shows in which promoters take on more of the financial risk, and there’s discussion about promoting more shows and events organized by VenuWorks, he said.

Hospitality tax

Board members, particularly Johnson and Chattin, aimed to gauge interest in a one-cent hospitality tax.

“If we have a hospitality tax, we can lower property taxes,” Chattin said, adding the hotel patrons and diners – not the businesses – would be paying the additional fee.

Before pursuing the idea, though, Chattin said city officials want the backing of Visit Bemidji, the city’s visitors and convention bureau, and Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce.

“If we don’t have support from Visit Bemidji and the Chamber, it’s going to be real difficult to get support from our lawmakers,” he said.

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