DAVE HENGEL COLUMN: Grateful for the progress at the Sanford Center
A turnaround like this doesn’t just happen. It takes hard work and difficult decisions. We’d like to offer our sincere gratitude to those whose work and leadership made all the difference.
President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
I have been a strong advocate for the Sanford Center since its inception. Greater Bemidji (then the Joint Economic Development Commission) was an early and active supporter of the vision for a regional events center.
We encouraged our community citizens to support the development of a center and asked the Bemidji City Council at the time to seek state bonding and legislation to make the dream real.
We saw the potential impact the center could have on our region’s economy and quality of life. Not only could a regional event center support Bemidji State hockey’s shift to Division 1, but it could also host conventions and trade shows that would bring visitors to our region.
Along with concerts and community events, the center would help make Bemidji the epicenter of arts and entertainment in northern Minnesota.
And when the Sanford Center was opened, it did just that. We became a different town the day after the center was built, clearly putting us on a path to be the regional center for north-central Minnesota.
But as we all know, for a variety of reasons the activity slowed, the impact decreased and the burden to our city taxpayers grew.
Just over a year ago, Greater Bemidji (along with the Bemidji Area Chamber, Bemidji State University and Sanford Health) once again asked the Bemidji City Council to make a difficult decision — this time to fully assess the management at the Sanford Center and consider a shift in the management company.
We felt new ideas, new energy and a renewed commitment to that original vision for the center were necessary.
We also understood that it was a difficult decision. Changing management firms would create uncertainty for staff and additional work for the city.
The current city council ultimately made the decision to move forward with a review and seek requests for proposals from event center management firms, ultimately choosing ASM Global.
The council also provided clear expectations to ASM: 1. increase activity at the Sanford Center, 2. increase engagement with the community, and 3. reduce the operating deficit.
At the March 6 city council meeting, Sheila Murphy, executive director at the Sanford Center, provided the first annual report under ASM’s leadership. Simply put, the turnaround at the Sanford Center has been remarkable.
Over the past year, the Sanford Center hosted a diverse mix of events including Disney Junior Live, comedian Charlie Berens and Brantley Gilbert and Dustin Lynch concerts. Collectively, these events brought in over 10,000 attendees from throughout the region.
This is above and beyond the attendance of BSU hockey and other athletic events. There were also 43 conferences held at the center, highlighted by the Anishinaabe Arts Festival, as well as many weddings, private events and parties.
In 2022, the Sanford Center opened its doors to several community events, hosting an Easter egg hunt, Halloween treat street, vintage Christmas, Holiday marketplace and a New Year's Eve party. They also had opportunities such as open roller skating and ice skating that work to bring the community into the center.
Finally, the bottom line of the Sanford Center improved dramatically. Operating losses at the Sanford Center pre-pandemic were approaching $450,000 — a heavy burden on our city residents. The operating deficit in 2022 was roughly $180,000. That is a dramatic financial turnaround.
A heartfelt 'thank you'
While we know it is only the first year, these results need to be applauded. A turnaround like this doesn’t just happen. It takes hard work and difficult decisions. We’d like to offer our sincere gratitude to those whose work and leadership made all the difference.
First, we’d like to thank our friends and neighbors who work at the Sanford Center, many of which remained with the center during this difficult transition. It was their efforts behind the scenes that laid the foundation for the turnaround.
We’d also like to thank Sheila Murphy and the leadership at ASM Global. ASM is the largest venue management firm in the world operating over 350 venues.
They operate venues far larger than our Sanford Center in markets far stronger than ours in Bemidji. Sheila moved to Bemidji without any connections here. Both took on the challenge of turning around the Sanford Center. Thank you for taking the risk on us.
Finally, we’d like to honor the bold leadership and decision-making of Mayor Jorge Prince and our Bemidji City Council members. The council showed strong leadership by pausing, assessing the challenges and opportunities at the Sanford Center and identifying areas of concern.
From that assessment, they made the decision to act by changing the management firm. We believe the mayor and city council handled the process and assessment extremely well and were justified in making the change.
To be clear, this was not an easy change. The assessment took many hours of work by a council-appointed transition committee. Thank you to transition committee members Mayor Prince and Councilors Audrey Thayer and Ron Johnson for their commitment of time and energy.
In addition, the final decision to move forward with new leadership was not a politically safe decision to make. It would clearly have been far easier for the council to do nothing. Thank you to those on the council that chose to act as stewards of the Sanford Center and our community, as opposed to doing the politically expedient thing.
While this was only one year of results, the trajectory of the Sanford Center clearly made a shift this year. We are hopeful the trend continues. As community members, it is time to shift our perceptions and return to our original vision of the center.
Thank those who have led the charge over the past year — the staff, ASM Global and our mayor and city council. Most importantly, take advantage of our center by going to events, concerts, games, etc. when given the opportunity.
We all have a role in ensuring the Sanford Center's long-term success.
Dave Hengel is the executive director of Greater Bemidji Economic Development. He can be reached at (218) 444-5757 or email@example.com.