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Organizers confident lower attendance at Sonshine was simply an aberration

Fans gather Saturday in front of the Main Stage at Sonshine Festival for a performance from Grammy Award winners Casting Crowns. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Sonshine, the four-day Christian music festival held annually on the grounds of the Willmar Civic Center, concluded Saturday, and by all estimates, attendance was down over year's past.

Some who attended said they were disappointed in the smaller crowd; others said they were thankful for a more peaceful festival.

"I'd guess we were down a couple thousand tickets," said Bob Poe, an organizer of the festival that usually attracts some 20,000 people to the city. "I really don't know why. It could be one reason or it could be a number of reasons."

Official attendance numbers won't be available for a few days, he said.

Poe said the wet weather during last year's festival may have discouraged some from returning. He also noted events in the Twin Cities.

"I thought it had a lot to do with the rain last year, some just said 'never again,'" said Kelsi Naggatz of North Branch, who has been attending Sonshine for about five years.

"Usually when we camp, you can barely walk between the tents," she said, noting a smaller number of tents in her area.

Other Sonshiners said the main stage lineup -- with headliners Switchfoot, Newsboys and Casting Crowns, but missing regulars Skillet and Toby Mac -- may have attributed to the smaller attendance.

"Many thought, well, Skillet is not here, so there's not going to be a huge stage presence," said Charley Crea of St. Bonifacius. "The second stage lineup was great, but people don't come to the festival for second-stage acts. When someone's looking at a ticket, they often look at the headliner."

The main stage lineup, Crea said, included a lot of older bands that people have seen for the past 20 years. Crea added festivalgoers aren't going to pay top dollar to see the same bands every year.

Poe disagreed that the lineup influenced the smaller crowds. "The lineup is as good as any festival in the country, better than most," he said. "When you look at Christian festivals, we had many more headliners than any other festival, and we always have."

Marketing may have also influenced the smaller crowds, Crea noted. The event is marketed more toward families, Crea said, adding young parents who've attended the festival for years now bring their children to experience it.

Gary Crow, another organizer of the event, agreed organizers were trying to make it more family friendly. Organizers this year added the Sonshine Circus and more concerts, performed in the Blue Line Club next to the HM stage, tailored to younger children.

"It's a completely different festival than when I started going 10 years ago," Lusa Bedard of Bloomington said.

She was part of the stage crew and said concerts in year's past were packed like sardines, but this year's crowd was more sparse.

Robert Wagner of Champlin said he was disappointed in the crowd.

The camaraderie with other campers is a big part of the festival, he said.

His daughter, Bre, said, "It was still fun but it was definitely a little different."

The economy may have also played a part in the crowd.

Full event tickets for adults were $94 in advance or $99 at the gate. Single-day tickets were $40 in advance or $45 at the gate. Discounts were offered for Willmar residents and children.

Poe said organizers will take a look at all the particulars when they start planning next year's festival in a couple of weeks.