With just 13 months to go before the start of the 2006 Arctic Winter Games, the organization charged with producing the event has lost its chief executive.
Loren Smith, hired in December 2003 to be general manager of the Kenai Peninsula 2006 Arctic Winter Games Host Society, announced his immediate resignation at a host society board meeting Feb. 10, citing personal reasons for his decision. The board has launched a statewide search for Smith's replacement.
Borough Mayor Dale Bagley, chair of the host society board, was named acting general manager until a replacement can be found.
The immediacy of Smith's departure has left unanswered questions about whether there were other reasons, such as differences with the board. A press release issued by Marketing Solutions Inc., of Anchorage, the Games' public relations firm, said only that Smith had told the board it was a family decision that he return to his home in North Pole.
Whether there was impetus to leave his job beyond the reasons cited publicly, neither Bagley nor other board members would say. In an interview Monday, Bagley declined to elaborate beyond the official statement. While acknowledging the situation might raise concerns among Arctic Winter Games supporters and the general public, he said Smith's departure should pose no insurmountable problems.
Board member Bill Popp declined to comment on the reasons for the resignation itself, referring inquiries about that subject to Marketing Solutions and to Bagley. Popp did say the resignation in no way indicates any financial problems with the host society or its efforts.
"We just broke the $3.5 million (fund-raising) mark and are well on our way to our goal of $5.85 million, including a $230,000 contingency fund," Popp said.
Asked Monday for her perspective, board member Kathy Gensel, who works for Wells Fargo, said, "I do not care to make comment on any of it."
Board member Tim Navarre, who did not attend Thursday's meeting, declined comment, wanting, he said, to talk with other board members first.
Board member Jack Cushing, of Homer, was traveling and could not attend the meeting, though he said he tried unsuccessfully to tie in by teleconference. He said he had received a call early on the day of the meeting alerting him that Smith's job would possibly come up for discussion.
"They told me that day that it was the common wisdom that he (Smith) was probably going to resign," Cushing said.
Board member Debra Holle Brown did attend the meeting via teleconference. She said Monday she wouldn't be surprised if other board members, like her, were left wondering exactly why Smith resigned.
"There was a motion to go to executive session," Brown said. "There were some questions asked prior to that motion. Then Loren, in a gracious move toward the board, decided to offer his resignation."
Brown said board members might have learned more in a closed-door meeting about why Smith decided to leave, but that opportunity did not occur. Instead, Smith's resignation was accepted in open session.
"Therefore, I believe there are members, myself included, who may never know all the circumstances going on in Mr. Smith's life," Brown said, adding that Smith had made many friends on the peninsula, done excellent work on behalf of the Games and would be greatly missed.
A phone message left at Smith's North Pole home seeking comment Monday was not immediately returned.
According to board members, Smith had been given a good review in December, which resulted in a small bonus.
"The bonus was built in (to the contract) as long as he got a positive evaluation," Bagley said.
The search for a new GM will be a bit broader than the one conducted in 2003 that resulted in Smith's hire, Bagley said. This time, the society will consider proposals not only from individuals, but also from consulting firms seeking managerial contracts, he said.
"I'm hoping we find someone within a month and have them on the agenda for the March 10 board meeting," Bagley said. "Realistically, that may not happen."
The host society, he added, is looking for someone with management abilities, who knows the local area and its people and who has experience putting on sporting events, preferably with the Arctic Winter Games.
Smith was hired in December 2003 after a three-month search, largely because of his background in winter sporting events and youth athletics. His credentials included being assistant venue transportation manager for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, director of the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Anchorage, sports director of the 1996 Arctic Winter Games in Eagle River and other sporting events.
As general manager, Smith was to oversee all aspects of producing the 2006 Games.
The 2006 Games are expected to draw more than 2,000 athletes and cultural performers and 1,500 special guests from seven participating circumpolar nations. An estimated 3,000 volunteers or more will be needed to conduct the five-day event. Between 6,000 and 8,000 spectators are expected.
The absence of a general manager, even for a month or so, shouldn't impede the board or Host Society operations, Bagley said.
"Most decisions that need to happen aren't board-related," he said. "I've met with the employees. It's a matter of getting a handle on what they have to do and getting it done. The employees are capable of continuing in the absence of a general manager. They'll find the path and move forward."
A number of critical steps had already been taken prior to Smith's decision to leave, such as launching the ongoing fund-raising efforts, the opening of the Games' merchandising store in November and work by Sports Director Chris Hayes, who has been scheduling events.
The next step, Bagley said, will be putting together the operational manual detailing everything that will happen leading up to, during and after the Games.
A fund-raiser is scheduled for March 5. Bagley called the event "a huge deal."
The 19th Arctic Winter Games will be the largest sporting and cultural event ever held on the Kenai Peninsula, according to Marketing Solutions' press release. The Games will include 20 sports competitions and a variety of cultural activities. The five-day event starts March 5, 2006, at venues in Homer, Seward, Girdwood, Soldotna and Kenai.
Brown said she had little doubt that the march toward the Games next year would proceed smoothly despite the loss of the general manager.
"If I were the public, and I guess I am part of it, I would not be concerned," she said. "I'd be looking for ways to volunteer.
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