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Sanford Center: Management firm, board find compromise on bills

BEMIDJI – VenuWorks, the company hired to manage the Sanford Center for the city of Bemidji, said Thursday it would pay the salary for its interim director at the facility.

Steven Peters, president and owner of VenuWorks, said in an emergency special meeting that his company would cover the salary cost of David Ross, who the company brought in to oversee the facility while the search for a permanent executive director continues.

The city would cover the travel costs associated during the interim period, including expenses related to recruiting candidates.

The compromise appeared to satisfy members of the Sanford Center Advisory Board, but there was no official vote after several board members gave Peters an earful during discussion throughout the meeting.

The emergency meeting came after city officials, including council members, objected to an email Peters sent that spelled out the city would be billed for Ross’ salary.

Peters said he would personally handle Bemidji’s contract until a new executive director is hired. He said Ross is a friend who agreed to oversee operations in the short term.

“I will pay for him,” Peters said. “Does that put us back on the rails?”

City Manager John Chattin said the board couldn’t expect more.

“This is a relationship business,” Peters said near the meeting’s end. “We want to be here for a long, long time.”

VenuWorks has a five-year contract to manage the Sanford Center. There are two years remaining on the city’s agreement.

Throughout the meeting, advisory board members criticized VenuWorks for poor communication, turnover in the facility’s top administrative post and the process used to hire a replacement for Roger Swanson, who was fired Aug. 8.

Swanson replaced Bob LeBarron, the original executive director who resigned in October 2011.

VenuWorks assigned two corporate executives to oversee the events center since Swanson’s departure. Both were also tasked with other corporate duties, partly because VenuWorks changed its events and entertainment division to address shifts in the industry, Peters said.

In addition, Andy Long, a vice president with the company, suffered a serious medical condition requiring surgery.

That prompted VenuWorks to hire Ross as a contracted employee.

Advisory board members said their complaints weren’t with Ross, but how VenuWorks communicated its changes.

“We need someone to bring in the events,” said Greg Negard, a city council and advisory board member. “When the parking lot is empty, people drive by and say, ‘There’s nothing going on.’”

Councilor and advisory board member Ron Johnson said the city chose VenuWorks because the Sanford Center wasn’t among the smallest venues under its management. He also said the city expects the company to operate the facility below budget.

“We expect it to be under and significantly under” budget, Johnson said.

Much of the discussion, though, focused on turnover with the executive director’s position, conversations to find a replacement and the process.

One person has interviewed for the position. Advisory board members said they wanted to visit with more candidates as a comparison. Peters said his company will bring more candidates to interview for the position, meaning a replacement may not be in place until December or January.

Johnson and other members agreed that no one asked VenuWorks to bring in an interim director, and there was never an agreement to pay for one.

“This isn’t about David (Ross),” Negard said. “You’ve been through two executive directors. We’re hearing the brunt of that.”

Peters spelled out an explanation for his email about charges to the city, and said the company works within the budget the city approved.

Chattin said VenuWorks didn’t violate terms of its contract with the city.

“The process and communication sucked,” he said. “That’s the issue.”

Board member Bill Maki, who also is the Bemidji State University vice president of finance and administration, said he’s been troubled with how VenuWorks has handled finding a new director.

“A lot of this could have been avoided if there was more of a partnership between VenuWorks and the city,” Maki 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