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Track record of success

Cheryl Swanson used to manage nursing homes in Sioux City, Iowa, until her career took a turn into the events center business. Someone at the city's convention center figured her management experience was transferrable.

Cheryl Swanson
New Alerus Center director Cheryl Swanson. Herald photo by John Stennes.

Cheryl Swanson used to manage nursing homes in Sioux City, Iowa, until her career took a turn into the events center business. Someone at the city's convention center figured her management experience was transferrable.

As booking manager there, she said, she enjoyed the thrill of pursuing new acts.

"I enjoyed the chase, I enjoyed chasing an artist until you can get them to play your building," she said. "I increased bookings in Sioux City by 43 percent."

Now, as executive director of Grand Forks' Alerus Center, she'll be doing some chasing on behalf of the city, which owns the convention center and arena. But there's more to her job than booking, such as keeping costs under control and making sure events are properly executed.

She loves playing a role in the production of concerts and circuses, she said, even though it means never getting to actually attend and working 16- to 20-hour days.


The Alerus Center has had difficulty breaking even for much of its nearly 10-year history, a task that has given past executive directors a whole lot of heartburn. It's projected to lose $61,000 this year, though Swanson is crossing her fingers hoping no more snow falls over the next few weeks. Less money spent on snow removal would mean smaller losses.

Last month, Swanson became the fifth person to take on the executive director job. Previously, she'd run events centers at Michigan State University in East Lansing and at Eastern Michigan State in Ypsilanti.

Michigan State's Breslin Student Events Center hadn't made money in its 18-year history, she said, but she helped turned it around, tightening expenses and getting more events, supplementing Spartan basketball with Cirque du Soleil and Conan O'Brien.

Finances, she said, is an important part of measuring success, she said, but to really succeed, the Alerus Center would also have to meet public expectations for more entertainment.

An upcoming strategic review by the Alerus Center will set her priorities for her.

Conventions up, concerts down

The bright spot for the events center has been the convention business, which will likely break last year's record $1.2 million revenue, she said. But even if the convention side could balance out losses on the arena side, she said, she'd still want arena events.

Alerus Center commissioners have noted that Grand Forks voters turned down a convention center until, in 1996, an arena was added to it for concerts and sporting events.


The problem is the concert market has changed. There's more competition in Grand Forks because of the opening of Ralph Engelstad Arena in 2001, an unknown at the time voters went to the polls. The Ralph occasionally hosts concerts though it's not always clear if those concerts would've otherwise gone to the Alerus Center.

In 2003, the MTS Centre opened in Winnipeg, giving that much larger market a comparable venue to Grand Forks. And, since about mid-decade, the concert business itself has consolidated with fewer promoters controlling a smaller number of big stars who demand more profit guarantees from venues.

All are reasons cited by Alerus Center management for losses through the years.

Swanson agreed it's a competitive business -- she said it is unusual for small city like Grand Forks to have two arenas -- but she said it's competitive everywhere, even in East Lansing and Ypsilanti.

The Alerus Center does have a reputation as an excellent facility going for it, she said, but overcoming its small market size is about persuasion and building a reputation among promoters.

It's the major concerts that have troubled the events center. The few that do come have not performed especially well. Neil Diamond, Black Eye Peas and Britney Spears are names that have come up in this context, though Spears sold more tickets here than in some larger markets such as Des Moines, Iowa, and Orlando, Fla.

To offset that, Swanson's predecessors have pushed homegrown events, such as the community rummage sale, and mid-range concerts, such as the Classic Rock series anticipated for next year.

Those things would continue under her tenure, she said, but that doesn't mean the end of the major concerts. "I'll go after anything that plays at the Alerus Center."


Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

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