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Sonshine begins tonight with free show by Switchfoot

Workers assemble the stages Tuesday for Sonshine Festival near the Willmar Civic Center grounds. The Christian music festival begins at 7 p.m. tonight with a free show by Switchfoot. More than 100 bands are a part of the lineup. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- For four days a year, Bob Poe is the mayor of Tent City.

A small retinue surrounds him wherever he goes, asking about stage assembly, plumbing supplies and parking. As he talks to one person, he's interrupted by a cell phone call from another.

As the chief decision maker here in a soon-to-be sprawling mass of tents, RVs, food stands and skate parks, Poe is in high demand these days.

Compared with the intimate festival he founded with Gary Crowe and Linda Westberg in 1982, the modern-day Sonshine is a beast of epic proportions.

Organizing the resources to keep the estimated 22,000 attendants fed, secure and happy is his biggest challenge, he said.

"We're another Willmar for four days," he said. "The big thing will be providing these people with all of the services they need."

Providing those will take legions of volunteers and portable equipment.

Among those are more than 75 volunteers to put up and take down the festival grounds, 14 industrial-scale generators to power the loudspeakers and various pieces of equipment, and more than 500 food stand attendants.

A medical staff organized by Rice Memorial Hospital of Willmar will also form a temporary clinic on the grounds. More than 100 portable toilets cleaned three times a day by six full-time staff will provide sanitary facilities for visitors.

Though it may sound like it, the task faced by him and other volunteers at the festival is anything but daunting, said security supervisor Randy Quiggle. Most have been through this many times before, he said.

He's been coming out to the festival since the beginning. In 1987, he and 10 people from his church started providing security. Today, he oversees a volunteer security force of more than 150.

With more than 20 years of experience of providing security at Sonshine, he has the job down to a science.

As he patrolled the festival grounds in a golf cart Tuesday, he pulled out a map of the grounds, providing a neat grid for what will soon be the maze of tents known as "Tent City."

"By tomorrow, people will be lined up along this road," he said, looking out at the gravel roadway. "There'll be tents literally everywhere."

Gravel roads suitable for emergency vehicles are the main roadways, with secondary paths marked by yellow lines on the grass. They're all marked on the map, and each sector of the festival grounds is clearly labeled by a system of colors and numbers.

"So when we say, 'we've got an emergency in, say, Blue 2,' everyone will know where that is," he said.

This is something of a vacation for Quiggle, who was leisurely about his patrol, stopping to chat with visitors and helping them set up their camp sites. At every other time of the year, his job is at a K-Mart distribution center in St. Paul. He said he enjoys the annual tradition of moving out to Willmar for a week, diving headfirst into his job -- meeting new friends and connecting with old ones in the process.

Though he keeps busy, there are generally few security problems besides the occasional alcohol violation or visitors trying to come in without paying for wristbands, he said.

Sgt. Julie Asmus of the Willmar Police Department agreed. She said the majority of the problems city police face at the festival are parking-related.

"Honestly, for having 20,000 out there, it really is remarkable how few problems we actually have," she said.

Longtime festival-goer Jason Sheldon had a problem on Tuesday morning. Steve Bechtold and his family of four got to his prime tree-shaded spot near the main stage before he did.

Sheldon settled for a lesser spot nearby.

There were no hard feelings. Bechtold and Sheldon have met here many times over the years. Sheldon has been coming to Sonshine for 15 years, Bechtold for eight years.

Bechtold said that the music keeps bringing him and his family back. It's now become established in his family to set aside a week in mid-July for the festival.

"It's just a good tradition," said Bechtold, setting up a tent with his daughter, Amanda, and stepdaughter, Kaitelyn Kilmer.