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Founders amazed at growth of Sonshine Festival over its 30 years in Willmar, Minn.

The sea of people and tents visible from the Sonshine stage in this 2009 file photo illustrate what the annual Christian music festival has grown to become -- a community of its own on the edge of Willmar. (Tribune file photo)

WILLMAR -- The Sonshine Music Festival in its 30 years has grown beyond what the founders could imagine, according to Festival Director Bob Poe, who set out to create it in 1981.

A local youth pastor at the time, Poe wanted to give his kids something more to help affirm their belief in Christ and experience it through music.

Simultaneously, Linda Westberg of Spicer was putting together a similar idea up the road in Spicer to create a large gathering for Christian youth to congregate.

Poe assembled about 30 area church leaders with the notion of creating a music festival. By the second meeting that number was down to 12, but the idea stuck. The third meeting, the group was down to three: Poe, Westberg and Gary Crowe, who comprised the partnership of Sonshine Productions.

"It's always been the same mission, 'we want to call young people to be lifelong followers of Christ' and give them an opportunity to enjoy Christian music they like to hear," Poe said. "For us in the youth ministry world, it's a great time to contemporize Christianity for the kids."

This week, the Sonshine Festival will celebrate three decades of Christian music ministry that has drawn more than 500,000 visitors to Willmar. The event that spans four days will play host to more than 100 bands and thousands of music-goers Wednesday through Saturday at the Willmar Civic Center grounds.

Gary Crowe, who works with the city and other entities during the festival, said that in the 1980s, there were not a lot of events that some Christians could feel comfortable attending.

"We first wanted to have a place Christians could come together and meet each other and have good entertainment," Crowe said. "But we also wanted to make sure we had a message."

After 29 years, the masterminds behind the festival are amazed at the transformation.

The nonprofit Sonshine Productions conducted the first single-day Sonshine festival in 1982, bringing 1,800 people and eight bands to the Willmar Community College.

A year later, 3,200 people came, and by 1984, with 5,200 music-goers, a second day was added.

After three years and significant growth with 8,000 attendees in 1985, Poe realized, "it was going to be more than a local event."

A year many festival-goers won't forget, 1986, was the last year at the Willmar Community College. That year, 70 mph winds, rain and a nearby tornado caused the festival to shut down early and at large expense to the festival planners.

Crowe said the weather can play a significant role in creating memories and stories in people's lives. A memory the festival creators wouldn't forget either.

Poe said the three directors mortgaged their homes to help cover expenses the ticket sales could not meet as a result of the storm.

"It was a testing for us and we had to think about the future of the festival, and if it was something we were dedicated to and wanted to continue," Crowe said. "We were willing to put ourselves out there to say this is something we want to be involved in."

Westberg said the passion the three had for the festival and the opportunity they saw for it left little hesitation to put up their homes to help finance it.

Poe, along with Crowe and Westberg, soon found a new location for the festival at the Willmar Civic Center.

Crowe said the trio was a little uneasy about moving it to a flat, rural area, but soon found it to be a better area that was able to service their needs.

"At first we weren't sure if it was going to be a positive change," Crowe said. "We have had opportunities to move the festival, but Willmar was the place we started, so we wanted to stay here."

By 2003, the festival drew 19,000 fans to the three-day event featuring nearly 150 bands.

With such a large undertaking, the next year Poe decided to partner with festival production professionals. Today, the festival has teamed up with Creative Audio and Light in Nashville to supply the stages, light and sound equipment and works with Chicago-based partners to help with ticket sales and marketing.

As the festival grew, so did the number of bands. Poe said the band Switchfoot contributed to a record-breaking 23,000 concert-goers in 2005 because they went "mainstream" within that year.

The bands have helped with the success of the festival, Crowe said, because they are meeting a need for Christian music, bringing together like-minded individuals.

"We wouldn't have growth unless there was a need out there," Crowe said. "We have great bands -- the top Christian bands in the world -- but a lot of people that come are drawn in because they want to be with people that are like-thinking."

The like-thinking people traveling to Willmar create a 12,000-tent, week-long community just outside town that is continuously growing and is full of young, kind people, Westberg said.

"We just wanted to bring them all together and meet each other and encourage one another," Westberg said.

With the first band set to hit the stage at 7 p.m. Wednesday, this year's show will once again show the positive outcomes and growing pains the festival has had over the years.

"In any event there are always growing pains but overall when we were first started we were alone in doing this event," Crowe said. "As it began to grow, we really saw the community and county people stepping in, which has resulted into what you see today."