WILLMAR — Two years before Rockin’ Robbins became a reality, a group of friends from the two Rotary clubs in Willmar would travel to St. Cloud for Summertime by George, a summer concert series put on by the St. Cloud Rotary Club.

Joy Baker, the Willmar Rotary Club marketing coordinator for Rockin’ Robbins, said they were inspired by the success of that event and reached out to the St. Cloud Rotary Club to see if its success could be replicated in Willmar.

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Headliners Big Toe and the Jam perform during the fourth annual Rockin' Robbins event in July 2019 at Robbins Island Park in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune file photo
Headliners Big Toe and the Jam perform during the fourth annual Rockin' Robbins event in July 2019 at Robbins Island Park in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune file photo
“The Rotary Club came up with the idea of doing this back in 2014,” Baker said. “We had been going up, several of us, and enjoying the Summertime by George free concert series up in St. Cloud and that is also put on by their local Rotary Club. So we asked them for some advice on starting our own music series, similar to what they were doing. They were really gracious about sharing and helping and getting ours going. They came down and attended our first ones. It was just a great collaboration.”

After almost two years of planning and scheduling, the Rockin’ Robbins inaugural season kicked off with two outdoor concerts in 2016.

Knowing it was only the first season, the Rotary was hoping to at least raise enough money to cover the bills.

They broke even and then some, raising more than $20,000.

Funding improvements with concert series proceeds

That year, the Rotary donated the funds to the massive community fundraising effort for the construction of the new Willmar Destination Playground on Robbins Island.

Jim Houghton, lead designer for Leather's Associates, introduces his playground sketch to the crowd at Rockin' Robbins in 2016. Briana Sanchez / West Central Tribune
Jim Houghton, lead designer for Leather's Associates, introduces his playground sketch to the crowd at Rockin' Robbins in 2016. Briana Sanchez / West Central Tribune
After their success in 2016 and with a change in the organization’s bylaws by their governing body, the Willmar Rotary Club and the Willmar Lakes Rotary Club decided to merge, becoming the Willmar Rotary Club in July 2017.

“We had so much fun working on this together — it was a joint project by both clubs — that we decided to just merge and (become) one club,” Baker said. “So that is what we did. And that was pretty momentous for us.”

That same year, Rockin’ Robbins went from having two concerts to four, raising more than $38,000 for improvements to Robbins Island Regional Park.

In 2018, the Rockin’ Robbins concert series had one of its best years, raising more than $74,000.

The city of Willmar, with help and funding from Willmar Rotary, was able to give the Robbins Island entrance a facelift. This photo shows the entrance in 2017. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune
The city of Willmar, with help and funding from Willmar Rotary, was able to give the Robbins Island entrance a facelift. This photo shows the entrance in 2017. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune
Over those two years, the Rotary funded a new entrance that included a lighted welcome sign, flagpole, tree plantings and a landscaped entrance to the park. Also in 2018, it helped sponsor the new holiday light display at Robbins Island and continues to keep up with the growing Christmas light displays.

“So this year, we donated $20,000 to the veteran Flags of Honor Memorial project,” Baker said. “And so all told, we have donated about $78,000 of our proceeds so far.”

Over six years of operation, the Rockin Robbins concert series has raised around $301,000.

Baker said the Rotary is starting to plan its biggest fundraising project to date: “Building a permanent concert stage out at the island.”

This story was originally published in the West Central Tribune's IMPACT edition on Oct. 23, 2021. More stories in this section can be found at https://issuu.com/westcentraltribune/docs/impact_2021