Turnover at the top position: Next Sanford Center executive director will be arena's sixth leader in less than 10 years
BEMIDJI--When the next executive director of the Sanford Center is hired, that person will be the facility's sixth top leader since the Bemidji arena opened its doors in October 2010.
BEMIDJI-When the next executive director of the Sanford Center is hired, that person will be the facility's sixth top leader since the Bemidji arena opened its doors in October 2010.
On Wednesday, VenuWorks, the Iowa-based company managing the 193,000-square-foot facility, announced Jeff Kossow would be leaving his director position at the end of June.
When he does depart, Kossow's tenure will be just under three years, marking one of the longest stays in the top leadership position in Bemidji.
While not an anomaly in event center management, VenuWorks President Steve Peters said the relatively brief tenures at the Sanford Center aren't common.
"I wish we had more that stayed longer, but I think Jeff did a great job and we'll find our next good executive director," said Peters. "It isn't unique by any means in the industry, but we'd like to see people stay longer in the role. Our average is usually a considerably longer term for our executive directors. So, it's a question we will ask when people apply."
But having six directors in less than 10 years, coupled with annual operating losses covered by the city and lower-than expected attendance in 2018, the Sanford Center and its future is often a hot-button issue in Bemidji.
"(Executive director) is a challenging job and requires 100 percent support from our council, the tenant partner, the business community and our residents to be successful," Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht said. "Maybe in Bemidji we have room to grow in that regard. We always want stability, and I think we are at a point where there is stability with our management and staff, and we will continue to hope for that."
The Sanford Center is owned by the city of Bemidji, which contracts with VenuWorks to manage the facility. In April 2018, the City Council approved a new contract with VenuWorks through 2024, with a management fee of $9,500 per month.
Historically, the city has made operating transfers of $400,000 annually to cover losses and reinvest in the building. For 2019, the city approved an operating transfer of $453,000 to cover projected shortfalls.
In 2018, the operating loss at the Sanford Center was $421,734, coming in above the budgeted loss of $398,865. With the city's annual operating transfer of $400,000, the loss comes to $21,734.
The Sanford Center, first known as the Bemidji Regional Events Center, was made possible after a citywide vote in 2006. By a count of 2,227 to 2,182, Bemidji voters approved extending a half-cent sales tax to assist in the building's construction.
Ground broke for the facility in April 2009 and when it came time for the doors to open in October 2010, Bob LeBarron was selected as the first executive director. LeBarron held the position for a year, and was succeeded by the following:
• Roger Swanson, from December 2011-August 2012. Swanson was fired by VenuWorks for violating code of conduct.
• Curtis Webb, from late 2012 through April 2016. Webb left the position to take a similar role at another VenuWorks facility in Bloomington, Ill.
• Mike Cronin, May 2016-September 2016.
In September 2016, Cronin was asked to step down from the role to become associate director of operations. Soon after, Cronin resigned. In Bloomington, meanwhile, VenuWorks fired Webb in October 2016, after the company uncovered misuse of a company debit card.
Financial investigations were launched at both facilities and Webb was charged in Illinois for theft of government funds. According to the Minnesota State Auditor's Office, Webb misused more than $100,000 while at the Sanford Center.
Following Cronin stepping down and other staff changes, VenuWorks brought in Kossow to take the reins.
At the time Kossow was brought in, the Sanford Center also was undergoing staff restructuring, eliminating the event coordinator position, as well as the director of guest experience and food and beverage manager roles.
"The No. 1 thing I wanted to accomplish during my tenure here was to build a solid foundation for the future," Kossow said. "I think we accomplished great things."
Under Kossow, the Sanford Center's box office and business office areas were renovated to create a lobby area and main entrance.
"My first question was 'How do you get in here?'" Kossow said. "So, adding the entryway was a big addition, to provide a business place a front door. It's made a big difference; people can come in and meet with us face-to-face."
Outside of brick and mortar projects, Kossow and a task force from the city created a new guideline and procedure document for booking events. The guidelines now have consideration for events based on the level of economic impact to the hospitality industry and the community, projected revenue for the facility and potential for repeat bookings.
Another new focus is the "success pyramid," which prioritizes and summarizes how success should be viewed at the Sanford Center. The key factors of success are user experience, use as a regional recruitment engine, the BSU hockey experience and the facility's economic impact.
Also in Kossow's tenure, the original Sanford Center Advisory Board was reorganized into the Sanford Center Board of Directors. The new board expanded to include community members, along with representatives from the naming rights sponsor (Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota), BSU, and more.
"Changing the board was to get more engagement from the community. I'm very pleased with that," Kossow said. "Our board committees have really stepped up and have gotten involved with the community."
"I think more than anything, he stabilized the staff and put a good, talented team of managers together," Albrecht said. "I'm hopeful we can keep that team there."
Kossow and the city also added preventive measures in response to Webb's activity. Alterations were made to the Sanford Center bank accounts, reserving the operations account to only be controlled by the city while allowing VenuWorks to continue handling the box office account.
Despite the changes at the Sanford Center staff the past three years, Webb's actions, attendance numbers and the number of directors all have raised concerns for Ward 3 City Council member Ron Johnson.
Johnson, who voted against renewing the contract with VenuWorks, said the city should consider future management with the director position open or go with another management company.
"I think it might be a chance to look at how we manage the facility," he said. "I don't know if there's an appetite with our City Council to do that. But maybe we just need to take a step back and figure out if we're managing this in the best interest of the taxpayers."
Johnson said recent improvements to the customer service area and other upgrades are great, but that "the bottom line, though, are the results."
Since opening, the Sanford Center's operating losses have been, on average, more than $340,000
Attendance-wise, the event center had 115,645 people come through the doors in 2018, down from 130,812 in 2017, partially because of fewer BSU hockey games, officials said.
However, the event center also did create an economic impact of $17.7 million through its events. The economic impact comes not just through ticket sales or concessions, but rather added discretionary spending in area hotels, restaurants, gas stations, stores, etc.
"I hope we can continue the positive trend we've had so far in 2019," Albrecht said. In the first three months of the year, the Sanford Center has hosted three successful shows including Dwight Yoakum, Old Dominion and MercyMe, as well as a regional pool tournament.
"There are lots of great things happening," Kossow said. "We're meeting with BSU to partner even further. They need people in the facility, we need people in the facility, and we're meeting to discuss how we can help to make that happen. I think the future is going to be incredibly bright."
As for Kossow, the move from Bemidji was not related to the business.
"My wife and I are in the process of adopting a young child, less than 2 years old," Kossow said. "Part of that for us, as a husband and wife a little later in years for adopting is life balance."
With balance in mind, Kossow said he wanted to move away from the industry he's been in for 30 years. He's leaving for an executive leadership position at a law firm in Kennewick, Wash.
"It just wasn't something I would want to continue doing," Kossow said. "It was about leaving the business more than anything, and an opportunity came up, so I decided I'd take a Monday through Friday job and enjoy my weekends at home."