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Bemidji City Council: BREC management firm to be chosen

The decision between the two firms that are proposed to manage the Bemidji Regional Event Center came down to personality.

VenuWorks is now the city's preferred choice to manage the BREC. The Bemidji City Council on Monday voted 6-1, with Councilor Barb Meuers opposed, to begin negotiating with VenuWorks, which also operates the Alerus Center in Grand Forks.

VenuWorks, explained City Manager John Chattin, is aggressive enough to get events and conventions for Bemidji.

"But they aren't so aggressive as to not fit in with our community," he said.

VenuWorks and Global Spectrum, which operates the FargoDome, both submitted proposals to the city in May.

But the proposals were so similar, Chattin reported, that neither stood out as an initial favorite. So the city and Bemidji State University representatives sat in with VenuWorks and Global Spectrum Aug. 3-4 as the firms, on separate days, interviewed potential general manager candidates for the BREC job.

"I think it was really ... the pushiness," Chattin said of the difference between the two firms and their general manager candidates.

Global Spectrum was "extremely aggressive," he said.

The city's committee unanimously decided that VenuWorks was its top choice for the BREC management firm.

Committee members were Rita Albrecht, the city's community development director; Chattin; City Councilor Roger Hellquist; Bill Maki, vice president of finance and administration at BSU; Bill Merrill of Leo A Daly; and Gayle Quistgard, executive director of VisitBemidji. Bill Krueger of Conventions Sports & Leisure also sat in on the interviews, but was a non-voting member.

"There was more of a Bemidji-like feel to VenuWorks," Hellquist said.

Chattin also said that it appeared that employees of VenuWorks stayed with their facilities longer.

With Global Spectrum, he said, general mangers "don't seem to last as long."

Negotiations with VenuWorks are expected to take about one month, during which time the firm also would conduct a national search for the BREC general manager.

Chattin explained, following the council meeting, that the firm would utilize the search to ensure that it is not restricting itself to the three candidates it offered during the general manager interviews held earlier this month.

There may be other potential candidates, he noted.

Specifics of a potential contract will not be available until the conclusion of negotiations.

However, Chattin and Hellquist both told the City Council that the financials of the two proposals were very similar.

Both firms estimated operating deficits for the first year at about $300,000 and the third year at about $60,000, Chattin said.

Councilor Ron Johnson said it was "unfortunate" that there was not more council participation in the process. Johnson did sit in on the interviews with VenuWorks and Global Spectrum, but was not one of the committee members.

Councilor Barb Meuers said she believed that Global Spectrum was more of a national firm.

"I would think that was taken into consideration," said Mayor Richard Lehmann, referencing the range of community members who served on the city's committee.

Chattin said Global Spectrum may manage larger facilities, but said VenuWorks was familiar with 4,000-seat event centers.

"I think VenuWorks deals more with venues (of that size) ... than Global Spectrum does" he said.

Councilor Kevin Waldhausen noted that the city would not be tied to VenuWorks if negotiations do not work out.

Johnson wondered if anyone asked VenuWorks about its management of the Burnsville Performing Arts Center.

The Burnsville Performing Arts Center, according to a July article in the Pioneer Press, lost almost $280,000 in its first four months of operations.

The Burnsville City Council had commissioned a study in 2006 that estimated the center would, in a worst-case scenario, run at an annual shortfall of $300,000 for the first five years, the Pioneer Press reported.

Hellquist said VenuWorks and the general manager candidates - one of whom was the Burnsville general manager - did address the Burnsville situation.

Their explanation, Hellquist said, was that it was a combination of the facility's structure, funding and how it was run that all contributed to the center's current situation.