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Sonshine finishes strong despite storm evacuation

Lexi Chouinard of North Branch feels the vibe of the Christian rock band Hyland during the band's performance Saturday afternoon on the Sonshine Main Stage. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- The 29th annual Sonshine Festival finished as planned Saturday evening after a potential storm threatened to cancel the festival's closing performances.

At around 5:30 p.m. Saturday, the Sheriff's Reserve patrolling the grounds advised all festival campers to take down their tents because of a possible storm with high winds and hail expected. Security had been preparing for a storm all afternoon, according to Sgt. Julie Asmus of the Willmar Police Department.

At 6:40 p.m., festival-goers were sent to their cars, the high school or the Civic Center to wait out the storm. By 7:25 p.m., volunteer security were allowing people in the buildings to return to the grounds.

"(The evacuation) was almost textbook perfect," Asmus said. "The notice to campers was well in advance for them to prepare. People were in the buildings when the sirens went off, and it was very well-organized inside with the volunteer security."

The sun returned a little after 8 p.m., and by 8:30, the festival host announced that all was back on track. The evening ended with a shortened performance by Thousand Foot Krutch and a full concert from Skillet, a two-time Grammy-nominated band and the festival closer.

All week, Sonshiners had been looking forward to seeing Skillet perform, and when the band took the stage, they didn't disappoint. Their show featured advanced pyrotechnics -- including flames, fireworks and smoke -- and a diverse line-up of some of the band's biggest songs.

"Who cares about the storm, am I right?" Skillet's lead singer John Cooper yelled to the screaming crowd. "I'm so glad we're not rained out tonight. You guys came out to rock."

Three friends from Willmar, Grant Schow, Torin Swanson and Coty Hull, agreed that Skillet was the best way to close the 2010 Sonshine Festival.

"They know how to close," Hull said. "They were good."

About 18,000 people attended this year's festival, a couple thousand less than in the past few years, according to festival director Bob Poe. He attributes the decrease in attendance to the economy and not to the festival itself.

"It seems like most of the entertainment across the country is going down," Poe said. "We had a great line-up (of bands) this year. Everyone I talked to was thrilled with what was going on. I think it's just the economy."

Vendors at the festival noticed a drop in numbers this year and said it affected their sales for the week.

"It was worse than last year," said Jon Emami, who has run a smoothie stand at the festival for the past 11 years. He also runs Café Persepolis on Litchfield Avenue and Yogurt Plus in the mall. "It was not very good at all."

Emami estimates that only 800 people visited his stand this year. Despite the low numbers, he said that he'll still be back next year as a way to support the festival.

"We're a local business, they're a local business," he said. "We try to support each other."

Officials in charge of the security and medical staffs said the festival went well from their standpoints.

Jim Kroona, EMS coordinator for Sonshine, said medical staff treated 416 people this year, a number "significantly lower" than when he started working the festival 13 years ago. Most of the people treated this year were for heat-related causes or crowd anxiety.

During the evacuation, three people were "indirectly" hurt because of the storm, Kroona said: One person slipped and fell on their way to the high school, and two people got overheated from being in a confined space with so many other festival-goers.

Sgt. Julie Asmus from the Police Department said the number of incidents her staff reported was also "significantly less on all accounts" from past years. Even parking, the main issue security usually has to handle, was better this year, Asmus said.

Overall, Poe said he was pleased with how the festival went this year, even despite the lower attendance numbers and the bad weather Saturday night.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, let's give it an 8.7," he said. "Only because of a couple of rain things."

Poe and many who attended Sonshine 2010 are already looking forward to next year's festival, scheduled for July 13-16, 2011.

"Sonshine is pretty much the best thing ever," said Zack Leediker, 13, of Willmar. "I can't wait to come back next year."

Ashley White

Ashley White is the community content coordinator for the West Central Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @Ashley_WCT.

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