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Despite an alleged misappropriation of more than $100,000 from the Sanford Center in Bemidji, Minn., by a VenuWorks employee, city officials there remain satisfied with the Ames, Iowa-based management company.

"In our case there is much more to managing our facility than purely trying to make money on booking hard ticket events," said Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews. "We manage a state university relationship, division 1 hockey, and major conventions and conferences here, and our success is measured on community economic impact."

The center's economic impact has been estimated at $19 million on the greater Bemidji region. The city budgets about $400,000 annually for the facility to cover operating losses and reinvest into the building. 

Brookings, S.D., City Manager Jeffrey Weldon shares a similar view.

"Overall, I'd rate them excellent," said Weldon about VenuWorks management of the city-owned Swiftel Center. "They are the only management company that we've ever had since the arena opened in either in 1999 or 2000. Whenever their contract has been up, we have enthusiastically renewed it. I can't imagine having anybody here that I'd rather have than VenuWorks."

With a seating capacity for big-name concerts of about 5,500 people, Swiftel Center is considered a small arena. "But VenuWorks has been able to bring in a lot of Country Music Award winners," said Weldon. "Martina McBride, Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line — those have been the concerts that I've been to in the last couple of years. In the early 2000s we had a lot of rock artists too, but that market is not quite as strong in this part of the country."

Weldon said the city's goal is to try to have the center be as revenue neutral as possible.

"But we don't have the facility to make money," he added. "Our policy purpose for the facility is quality of life and bringing things to the community. That's benefited by the economic impact. We have calculated about $30 million community wide in economic impact that the facility provides."

So annual city operating subsidies of about $300,000 to $350,000 "is a small price for that kind of community-wide benefit," he added.

The Burlington, Iowa City Council voted in August not renew its contract with VenuWorks after the firm's first three years of managing the city-owned Memorial Auditorium.

"The venue just didn't seem like it was doing what we wanted it to. So we thought it was probably best to try to move in a different direction," said Burlington Mayor Shane McCampbell.

In fiscal 2017, the Burlington auditorium operated at a loss of $404,016.

"It comes down to dollars and cents, and the taxpayers pay for Memorial Auditorium to stay open," said McCampbell. "So we had to consider how much money we are going to put toward an act or a venue if it's not paying off and it's costing us a whole lot more than what we're receiving."

VenuWorks plans to pay back more than $100,000 to Bemidji and has paid the city of Bloomington $40,535 in restitution stemming from the alleged misappropriation of public money while Curtis Webb oversaw daily operations of the cities' arenas for VenuWorks.

VenuWorks fired Webb on Oct. 14, 2016, after it found unauthorized usage of a company debit card. Webb, 46, has pleaded not guilty in McLean County Circuit Court to theft of government property, a felony. His next court appearance is Nov. 20. He has not been charged in Minnesota.

Follow Maria Nagle on Twitter: @pg_nagle

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