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Sanford Center: A busier year in sight for Bemidji’s event center

BEMIDJI – A banner year may be in store for the George W. Neilson Convention Center at the Sanford Center.

In 2013, there are at least eight conferences and 16 weddings booked at the city-owned multipurpose building.

By comparison, there were 12 weddings in the past year – but no conventions.

One big reason for the change is promoting the Sanford Center outside of the Bemidji area and the addition of a staff member dedicated to booking events at the convention center.

Last February, Georgette Bloom joined the Sanford Center staff as convention sales manager. In less than a year, she’s helped sell the facility as an events destination ranging from intimate wedding retreats to large, full-service professional conferences.

The payoff is expected to reverberate through the community.

“If you look at the estimate number of people coming during each convention for multiple days, not only is this beneficial for the budget here at the Sanford Center, but the economic impact will be huge,” said Bloom.

The conferences are expected to have an $800,000 economic impact in the community as attendees spend money at hotels, restaurants, convenience stores and area businesses and attractions, she said.

The convention center also is growing in popularity as a wedding venue. Each wedding is anticipated to bring between 150 and 450 people to the center.

Some conventions strongly considered Bemidji as a host site in 2013, but backed out when construction for a planned Country Inn and Suites hotel adjacent to the Sanford Center was delayed.

Bloom and others are hoping to recapture interest for those conventions once hotel construction begins.

The Sanford Center also stands to benefit from efforts by Visit Bemidji, the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau.

The organization soon will add a sales director to promote Bemidji’s various meeting venues, including the Sanford Center, notably to groups in the Twin Cities area.

“The hard part is getting people to Bemidji,” Bloom said. “Once we get them here, they want to come back.”

Denelle Hilliard, executive director of Visit Bemidji, said key elements – primarily meeting space and additional lodging – are making Bemidji more attractive as a conference destination.

The Sanford Center is “a huge positive because it’s another added benefit and amenity we can sell,” Hilliard said.

It provides a conference site for major corporations and state associations, particularly for events drawing 350 or more people.

“We weren’t able to sell it as a bigger and better convention destination” prior to construction of the Sanford Center, Hilliard said.

Add the DoubleTree Hotel, next to the Green Mill on the south shore, and the eventual hotel next to the Sanford Center, the area’s ability to host larger events improves as lodging capacity increases.

“It really will open up the doors to spread the economic impact,” Hilliard said of the added hotel space. “I get excited and revved up to see the potential.”

The year ahead at the convention center

The following is a list of 2013 conventions booked for the George W. Neilson Convention Center at the Sanford Center

March 15-16: 7th District Congressional Republican Convention, 300 people

March 21-22: Evergreen Annual Conference, 250 people

April 12-13: Nursing Conference, 180 people

April 24-27: Rotary Conference, 400-500 people

June 14-15: Minnesota Mission of Mercy, 200-plus dentists and their hygienists, 700 volunteers and estimated 2,000 using free service

June 19-23: Minnesota Fire Department State Convention, 400 people

July 24-26: Coalition of Greater MN Cities, 150 people

Sept. 19-21: Minnesota Dental House of Delegation, 165 people

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