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Economic impact of Willmar, Minn., Sonshine festival could be up to $4M

Travis Hanson, a Target team leader, stocks shelves Monday at the store on First Street South in Willmar. Local stores are expecting increased sales this weekend as the city will practically double in size when thousands arrive mid-week for Sonshine, the annual Christian music festival held on the Civic Center grounds. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- From fast-food restaurants to gas stations to grocery stores, local businesses are stocking up for the Sonshine music festival.

"You plan for everything," said Corissa Jones, store manager of the Willmar McDonald's restaurant.

Starting Wednesday, the city's population will double with the 20,000 Christian music fans expected to attend this year's outdoor festival on the grounds of the Willmar Civic Center.

Although big-name bands such as Switchfoot and Third Day are the main draw, hundreds of festival-goers also will be hitting the town for food, fuel and other essentials.

The local economic impact of Sonshine, one of the largest events of its kind in the U.S., is estimated at somewhere between $2 million and $4 million.

Based on the average amount of money that festival-goers spend while they're here, Sonshine pumps at least $2 million into the community's economy, said Beth Fischer, executive director of the Willmar Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"That's just the basic expenditures," she said.

"We're so fortunate to have it here. It does a lot for our community."

"We're a small community," said Bob Poe, executive director of Sonshine. "We'll just about double the size of Willmar for the weekend. They're staying in motels. If they're staying in a motel, they're eating at a restaurant."

In hot weather, visiting music fans buy water and ice and sunscreen, he said. If it's raining, they buy rain gear.

By this past Friday afternoon, the phone was ringing steadily at the AmericInn.

"We are filling up for the event," owner Bob Patel said during a break between phone calls.

The motel is usually full during Sonshine, he said.

Weather also can drive up the demand, he noted. "When it rains they usually come looking for rooms."

With three decades of experience at hosting the Sonshine festival, local businesses have become practiced at what to expect and how to gear up for it.

"That's what we're prepared for," said a spokeswoman for Target. "If the town's going to grow by 10,000, you just prepare for that kind of traffic."

At McDonald's, Jones and her crew increased their orders ahead of time for food supplies and will be adding extra staff to every shift.

"I'm pretty organized so I keep all my information from last year," Jones said. "We're definitely busier."

Although the retail impact on the surrounding community is substantial, Sonshine also has a direct economic impact for many of the festival's on-site services such as garbage collection and the first aid tent.

Among the 16 food vendors on the festival grounds this week will be a handful of local vendors, Poe said. "It's nice when everybody can win."

The economic ripple also extends to local tourism. Many of the people who come for the Sonshine festival decide to visit the area again and sample other attractions, Fischer said. "We hear that all the time. The exposure we get from it is unbelievable."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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