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Special meeting set to discuss VenuWorks’ memo to Bemidji about Sanford Center bill

BEMIDJI – An emergency special meeting for the Sanford Center’s advisory board has been set for this morning to discuss VenuWorks’ attempt to bill the city for its interim executive director.

 VenuWorks, hired by the city to manage the facility, sent a memo to officials that it planned to bill Bemidji for David Ross’ salary while he temporarily oversees operations at the event center.

“I don’t plan to approve that,” Ron Johnson, a city councilor and advisory board member, said Wednesday.

According to a notice sent by the city to the media, “The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the executive director transition with VenuWorks.”

The advisory board also may address other concerns about VenuWorks’ handling of the Sanford Center.

“There are several issues the advisory board would like VenuWorks to deal with,” said City Manager John Chattin, who also is an advisory board member.

Top of the list for the 8:30 a.m. meeting at the Sanford Center, though, is compensation for Ross, the third interim executive director since VenuWorks’ fired Roger Swanson in August.

Company president Steven Peters sent a memo to the city stating Bemidji would be billed for Ross’ salary. That brought a reply by Johnson, and in turn prompted Peters’ unplanned visit at today’s meeting and discussions Wednesday with city staff.

“Why should we pay for a vacancy we didn’t create?” Johnson said in a phone interview.

The councilor also questioned how VenuWorks has handled the interim position.

“We’ve had an unusual number of vacancies,” Johnson said. “It was getting to the point no one was here… We have a great staff and they’d done a good job with little to no supervision.”

Too many heads

Johnson said his issue isn’t with Ross, who has worked in the facility management industry for 27 years.

Ross, hired on contract by VenuWorks until the company selects a permanent executive director, was introduced at the advisory board’s regular monthly meeting this past Monday. He is the fifth executive director since the Sanford Center opened in October 2010.

 Ross spent most of his career as director emeritus of the Show Me Center in Cape Girardeau on the campus of Southeast Missouri State University.

Before his arrival, Tammy Koolbeck, vice president of venue services for VenuWorks, had been the interim director. She briefly served in the role, taking over for Andy Long, the company’s vice president of events and entertainment.

Long spent every other week in Bemidji after taking over as interim role for Roger Swanson, who was fired for personnel reasons Aug. 8, until he suffered a medical condition that prevented Long from continuing in the role.

Even before then, Swanson had been the permanent executive director just more than seven months. He held the interim role for the last three months of 2012 as the replacement for Bob LeBarron, who unexpectedly resigned last October.

After VenuWorks fired Swanson, Long said he hoped to have an executive director in place by Oct. 1. Now it is expected to take four to six weeks to hire someone to lead the Sanford Center.

About the money

The day VenuWorks announced Swanson’s dismissal, Long told the Pioneer that the city’s budget would be unaffected.

 “There’s nothing that will impact the budget, from a financial standpoint, here,” Long said.

Eleven days later, at the advisory board’s August meeting, Long told board members his salary would be a corporate expense and not affect the Sanford Center’s budget.

But Ross’ salary isn’t the first compensation dispute between Bemidji and the company managing the event center.

In June, the city called a work session to address a $21,000 dispute with VenuWorks about 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 Peters, the president/owner of VenuWorks, promised in an October 2011 meeting that the company would cover the salary.

On Oct. 11, 2011, Peters appeared before the City Council Oct. 11 to request a $194,000 cash advance to cover a cash-flow issue; VenuWorks later repaid the funds. During that meeting, Peters said the company was committed to meeting the $417,000 projected deficit in 2011 and “VenuWorks is covering Mr. Swanson’s salary.”

VenuWorks repaid the city the $21,000 for Swanson’s salary, and at the June meeting, Long read an email from Peters.

“As stated above, it was and is our position that the invoice was valid,” the email read. “We made good on our financial guarantee.”

 Long said VenuWorks agreed to repay Bemidji because the company values the city’s trust and confidence as being essential to the development of a strong, long-term working relationship. The city’s contract with VenuWorks expires at the end of September 2013.

“This is a relationship business,” Johnson said Wednesday. “I don’t think we’re getting our money’s worth… We’ve had an interim or no manager almost as long as we’ve had one.” 

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