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Sanford Center: Webb gives city leaders confidence

Curtis Webb, executive director of the Sanford Center, stands outside the facility. Webb was chosen to lead the center in November after a stint in Ralston, Neb. Monte Draper|Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – It’s the summer of 2009, and Curtis Webb is slogging through the mud, past the steel beams that would become the Sanford Center on the south side of Lake Bemidji.

Webb was in town to interview for the center’s top job as an employee of Global Spectrum.

 Ultimately, the city of Bemidji chose a competing firm – Ames, Iowa-based VenuWorks – to manage its often-controversial facility.

Flash forward four years.

Webb, 41, is now the Sanford Center’s executive director as a new employee of VenuWorks, overseeing the facility’s administration and booking events. He came aboard in January amidst some city council frustration with the company over constant changes in the center’s executive director post.

But in just a few months, city leaders say his performance has given them more confidence in VenuWorks and the direction of the facility.

“I was a little bit more torn about bringing somebody in and they might not even have a chance, because we were so frustrated with VenuWorks,” said Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson, who sits on the Sanford Center Advisory Board. “I think Curtis has turned it around a lot faster than I thought he even could.”

Fellow board directors point to his demeanor and energy as a fresh sight in Sanford Center leadership.

For Webb, one word comes to mind when discussing what will make the facility successful.

“It comes back to consistency,” Webb said. “We want shows in here, we want to be consistent in what we bring, and we need the community to support us.”

“But by the same token, it’s my job to get shows here that the community wants to see.”

A Good fit

Webb was born in southern California but went to high school in Colorado Springs. He began teaching high school science after graduating from Colorado State University.

He went back to school at the University of Northern Colorado to study sports administration. During that time, he met with someone who was overseeing the construction of the World Arena in Colorado Springs, where the Colorado College hockey team plays.

“I was fascinated by it,” Webb said. “So I really immediately switched gears in my head.”

He went on to work in arena management jobs in Dallas, Cleveland and Canada. His wife and 5-year-old daughter are still in Cleveland, but will be moving to Bemidji soon.

“I think I could put down roots here for a while,” Webb said.

 Webb’s latest stop was in Ralston, Neb., where he helped open the Omaha suburb’s new arena. 

 Meanwhile, the city of Bemidji was looking for a second executive director in less than a year after Roger Swanson’s firing in August 2012. The center was without a permanent leader for months, leaving it in a “holding position,” said advisory board member Ken Howe.

Advisory board members were looking for a sense of stability in the position, which they believe they have in Webb. 

“He’s a good fit for the community,” said city manager John Chattin, who sits on the advisory board. “It’s part of what we were missing before.”

Mayor Rita Albrecht said Webb is a great communicator and has been responsive to board suggestions.

Howe added that Webb has been aggressive in pursuing events, even if the fruits of that work are yet to be fully seen.

“It’s a little too early to say there’s more shows, per se,” Howe said. “But there’s certainly more … balloons out there.”

future challenges

The center’s construction was, and still is, one of the more polarizing issues in Bemidji. That fact isn’t lost on Webb.

“I’m the first person to say, ‘Hey, the building’s here, I understand that you might have been against it. What can I do to help bring you here?’” Webb said.

Much of the recent controversy has to do with how the center is paid for.

The city has budgeted for a $400,000 subsidy for Sanford Center operations in 2013. The operating deficit came in at $377,992 in 2012.

Legislation is progressing that would allow the city to impose up to a 1 percent tax on restaurant and hotel purchases to pay for the facility’s operations.

Webb said facility staff has been able to control expenses, but bringing in more revenue remains a focus. He hopes to address that by tapping into a pool of agents and promoters he’s met over the years and ultimately bring in more events.

Webb said he’s been testing the waters by booking smaller shows into the ballroom. He cited The Farm, an up-and-coming country band scheduled to play the Sanford Center in June as a good opportunity for the center.

“They’re going to be big,” Webb said. “But we have the chance to get them in here now.”

Webb restructured some positions at the center after some managerial departures this year. That included putting food and beverage duties under the jurisdiction of Dave Wall, the center’s director of events.

 That’s meant fewer full-time positions, but more efficiency in some areas, Webb said.

“I think we’re adequately staffed,” Webb said. “For me, it all comes back to making sure we’re managing (the city’s) money properly.”

Though his is not a city position, Webb has been attending staff meetings at city hall, fielding questions about the Sanford Center and getting to know how Bemidji operates.

“I do feel like I am a part of the city for that reason,” Webb said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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