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Festival not meant to make money, but contends with cold economics

The Rev. Paul Burr of Hutchinson, left, accepts a sponsorship form from Noelle Dalen, kneeling, and her sister Danielle, right, at the booth for Compassion International the Christian child sponsorship ministry during Sonshine Festival on Friday afternoon. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Sonshine Festival co-founder Gary Crowe's favorite Sonshine story is almost biblical in it's telling.

It was many years ago, and the festival had went through an especially bad year. On it's last night, an epic storm came through, destroying thousands of dollars worth of equipment and sending fans running for cover.

Some time later, Crowe received a letter in the mail from a young woman who had been at the festival with her little brother. He had been an unbeliever, and so she had brought him to the Christian music festival under false pretenses. When the storm hit, they ran -- clawing their way up a muddy hill as hail rained down upon them.

They finally reached their car, where the woman saw that her brother was sobbing. She asked him "what's the matter?" He said, "I just gave myself to Jesus." She asked when, and he said, "half way up the hill."

For Crowe, that story represents why he and co-founders Bob Poe and Linda Westberg keep putting on the festival year after year. They don't do it for profit -- because, as they did in the case above, they often lose money.

They don't do it to donate to charitable causes, though they say the bulk of the festival's proceeds -- when there are any -- go to Christian charities.

They do it, they say, to provide a place for young people to not only have a good time, but to turn their lives around in the process.

Providing that place, however, has been a delicate balancing act for the co-founders since the beginning. Often, cold economics can get in the way of their best intentions.

"All of us have put up the mortgages on our houses in the past," said festival co-founder Bob Poe. "But sometimes, there is a profit, and there has to be, or we couldn't keep doing this."

The list of Sonshine's expenses is a long one, said Poe. Sound and equipment alone cost the festival over $100,000. Expenses for renting the Willmar Civic Center, for garbage service, and for maintaining a police presence all run in the thousands of dollars.

In all, the festival's expenses come to around $1.3 million, according to Poe.

To pay for that, they sell a lot of tickets. At $85 for each individual adult, it's their main source of income.

"We made up our mind a long time ago that we would put this on from money paid by the visitors," said Poe.

Other money makers include fees on vendors along with a percentage of their sales, though Crowe said the money from them doesn't even cover the cost of renting the Willmar Civic Center, where the majority are located.

At the Civic Center on Friday were purveyors of everything from wooden crosses made in Bethlehem, to novelty ties, to a product called Driving Reflections, the invention of Bloomington entrepreneur Jane Brown.

The product is a card that attaches to the dashboard of a car so that its message reflects off the lower part of the windshield. Those messages come directly from scripture. Brown takes Bible verses like Matthew 16:19 ("I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven") and makes them an affirmation ("I have the keys to the kingdom of heaven") so that drivers see positive reinforcement whenever they need it in the often ponderous moments of solitary driving.

"We do so much thinking and reflecting in the car, but often we need to fight back those feelings of doubt and discouragement that arise out of that," she said.

For Brown, who with her husband Mike was selling her product for the first time at the Sonshine Festival, the business is a way to witness their Christian faith.

"It's a ministry," she said.

But at $9.99 for a 16-piece set, it's also a money making enterprise.

"We have an entrepreneurial spirit," she said.

While vendors like the Browns pay a fee, many Christian nonprofits can set up booths in the Civic Center for free or at a greatly reduced cost, said the festival's founders. One of those was Compassion International, a nonprofit that connects third world children in poverty with sponsors in more developed countries.

Last year the organization signed up over 500 sponsors at the Sonshine Festival, according to volunteer Clark Duffey. He said it was remarkable how many teenagers made the decision to donate to the cause.

"I'll explain that it's $1.25 a day and they'll say, 'that's the same as a bottle of pop. I can change somebody's life for the price of a bottle of pop?'" he said. "Adults, they often think of all of their monthly bills and decide they can't afford to tack on something else."