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Sonshine Festival's economic impact to Willmar, Minn., community estimated at $4 million

Sonshine Festival volunteers sit on the main stage roof cover Monday as gusts of wind make setting up more difficult at the Willmar Civic Center grounds. The festival begins Wednesday evening. (Tribune photo by TJ Jerke)

WILLMAR -- As Willmar doubles in size for a week during the Sonshine Music Festival, the city's businesses and services find an opportunity to cash in.

The four-day Christian music celebration that begins Wednesday draws an average of 20,000 festival-goers and 120 bands per year. With a $1.2 million budget to put on the festival, the figures translate into at least $4 million in economic impact for the Willmar community, said Beth Fischer, executive director of the Willmar Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"People are staying in hotels, camping in campgrounds and hitting up restaurants and stores," Fischer said. "They are certainly out there spending their money."

A 2004 study by the Minnesota Tourism Office found the average spending per day per party for resident travelers was $187 while non-resident travelers spend $207 per day.

A large portion of funding for the festival comes through ticket sales. Festival Director Bob Poe said about half of the tickets are pre-sold while the other half are sold to those that walk up to the festival.

At $89, an adult ticket will get an attendee into all four days of music and various activities. That ticket translates into a cost of 90 cents per band.

Festival-goers won't find a better deal anywhere, Poe said, as he believes Sonshine Festival is one of the least expensive festivals to operate and attend.

Poe said about 12,000 parties stake a tent on the Civic Center grounds, or "Tent City," during the week. Despite that large number of campers, the music festival has a broad impact on hotels around Willmar, said Joel Vogler, vice president of hotel operations for Torgerson Properties Inc.

Torgerson Properties owns the Holiday Inn, Days Inn, Comfort Inn and Country Inn and Suites, all in Willmar, which Vogler said are usually full by the first day of the festival.

As of Friday afternoon, he said rooms were still available at all four locations.

"Any event that brings a positive light to Willmar is a benefit to any lodge," Vogler said. "This event takes up many rooms in the entire area."

Vogler said the hotels price their rooms competitively along with other hotels during the week.

"It is a supply and demand situation," he said. "We see competitive properties raise rates and we do as well."

The four Torgerson-owned hotels implement a three-night minimum stay to ensure rooms are booked during the week rather than during one of the larger Friday or Saturday nights.

The festival not only boosts local hotels and restaurants, but city facilities and departments find themselves taking in a couple dollars.

According to Poe, the festival spends $25,000 to use the Civic Center and its facilities, $20,000 to use the Senior High School, $8,000 for local garbage services and $11,000 to staff 24-hour security by the Willmar Police Department.

"It's the largest event we host at the arena," said Kevin Madsen, Civic Center operations supervisor. "It's a good opportunity to enhance revenue streams whether it be concessions or building and land rental."

Madsen said the festival rents the 14-acre space that is around the Civic Center as well as the additional space in the attached Blue Line Center.

He said the Civic Center operates its own vending and concessions during the four-day festival. Between land rental and concessions, the Civic Center took in about $18,000 last year.

Madsen said the arena crews have been setting up the Civic Center for the past two weeks, gearing up for the anticipated 20,000-person crowd.

Rich Olson, health and safety director for the Willmar Public Schools, oversees the festival's usage of the Senior High School for the showers, for the cafeteria for a pancake feed on Saturday and if there is inclement weather.

Olson said it's not a big money maker for the school but pays the bills for the four days it is used. He said the largest responsibility is maintaining the shower areas with so many using the facilities.

With only some minor problems over the years, Olson said the festival "has it down."

"It's such a great thing for Willmar with all the young people," Olson said. "It's just great to see the folks come out for the event."

Poe said the various entities do benefit from the festival in many ways, but ultimately the strong relationship developed with the city and venues benefits the festival the most.

"Willmar has been a great town for Sonshine to grow up in," Poe said.

Fischer said calls are continually flooding into the convention and visitors bureau office asking about Sonshine and other related questions.

She said the bureau advertises the city in a multi-state area in the Midwest with a large emphasis on the festival and what it has to offer.

"Organizers work hard to bring in great talent," Fischer said. "It certainly enhances the image of Willmar where people know it takes place and we are fortunate to have it."