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Sonshine leaving Willmar, relocating to Wis. in 2015

Sonshine Festival had its last year in Willmar. Owners announced Thursday that the Christian music festival is moving to Wisconsin. Here a singer performs during the 2014 event on the grounds of the Willmar Civic Center. (Tribune file photo)

WILLMAR -- Sonshine Festival is leaving the city where it began.

Next year's Christian music festival will be staged in Somerset, Wisconsin, owners announced late Thursday.

The event had been held in Willmar since 1982. Co-founder Bob Poe said Willmar was a perfect location when it began, but it has become more difficult to compete in a smaller marketplace. Organizers were forced to secure loans and delay payments in 2012, 2013 and 2014, he said.

"This is not acceptable and a terrible practice for a Christian ministry," Poe told the Tribune. "Since Sonshine can no longer attract enough attendees to Willmar, Sonshine is going to a larger population base."

Sonshine 2015 will be July 16-18 at the Somerset Amphitheater, located on the Apple River and about 35 minutes from the Twin Cities. It is a permanent festival facility with capacity for 35,000 attendees and all the amenities needed to host an event like Sonshine, Poe said.

Poe is also executive director of West Central Minnesota Youth for Christ.

Poe and Come Alive International made the announcement of the move Thursday. Come Alive International took over the operation of the annual Sonshine Festival in 2014, bringing it into a larger family of festivals.

According to a news release from Come Alive International, the Somerset area is a summer hub for music, camping and tubing. Sonshine at the new site will continue to have a Tent City for concert-goers to camp, and there are RV sites, hot showers and indoor plumbing accessible to all campers.

Four stages are planned for music and speakers, and there will be a vendor hall and activities and ministry for children among other events.

Sonshine Festival was started by Poe, Linda Westberg and Gary Crowe. The first year on the campus of what was then the Willmar Community College drew 1,800 people, and attendance doubled the next year, according to the Sonshine Festival website.

Over the years it had drawn as many as 20,000 people to Willmar. Major artists in Christian music performed on the stages, from Toby Mac to Newsboys, to Switchfoot and Family Force 5.

The festival for many years had been staged on the grounds of the Willmar Civic Center.

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