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Sonshine organizers, town prepare for influx of festivalgoers

WILLMAR -- After 25 years of the Sonshine Festival, organizer and co-founder Bob Poe said planning one of the country's largest Christian music festivals is still business as usual for him.

WILLMAR -- After 25 years of the Sonshine Festival, organizer and co-founder Bob Poe said planning one of the country's largest Christian music festivals is still business as usual for him.

Though, he admits, he doesn't miss the grunt work of the early days.

"The first few years I was doing a lot of the physical setup," said Poe, director of West Central Youth for Christ. "Fortunately, I've grown older and smarter."

Marking a quarter of a century for Sonshine, the 2006 festival gets under way with campers moving in at noon on Wednesday and the first main-stage act on Thursday. The festival continues all day Friday and Saturday as well on the grounds of the Willmar Civic Center.

Since its inception as a one-day, one-stage concert on the grounds of Ridgewater College, Sonshine has exploded into a three-day festival befit with music, speakers, vendors and activities such as a skate park and star search, all wrapped in a Christian message.

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For the past two decades the festival has been at the Willmar Civic Center and has seen a steady increase in attendance. More than 23,000 people came last year, doubling Willmar's population.

While the festival has ballooned, Poe said he and co-founders Linda Westberg and Gary Crowe have retained the spirit of the first festival in 1982.

"We've all stayed central to the focus and the purpose of our work," he said.

Sonshine has more than just the participants singing its praises.

Shari Courtney, executive director of the Willmar Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said it is difficult to come up with an exact number that reflects the impact the festival has on the local economy. But she said assuming each of the nearly 25,000 people in attendance spends between $50 and $100, the total number of dollars brought into local businesses would be between $1.25 million and $2.5 million.

That is a conservative estimate, she added.

Top Christian music acts Newsboys, Third Day, Hawk Nelson, Tobymac, Relient K and Jeremy Camp are among the acts that will play the main stage. This year's musical lineup will also include throwback acts, such as '80s rockers Stryper and Protokaw -- who is led by the founder of the band Kansas.

The festival features five stages, including a debut stage for local and regional groups. More than 100 bands are scheduled to perform.

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Many speakers will also address the large audiences, including Bob Stromberg, who is a member of the artistic staff for the stage comedy "Triple Espresso." Poe said he leaves it up to the speakers to pick their topic.

"All that I can guarantee is that he (Stromberg) will be funny," he said. Other main speakers are Peter Eide and Jeremy Kingsley.

Behind the scenes, nearly 900 volunteers are needed to produce the show, Poe said. This year, the festival has enlisted about 120 people from Rice Memorial Hospital to tend to first-aid and problems related to the heat. This is an increase from last year, in which staff reported they treated 844 individuals. A majority of those cases were heat-related.

The organizers limited traffic to one entrance last year in an attempt to make crowd control more efficient than it had been in prior years. They'll do the same this year.

"It keeps traffic flowing through," he said.

The Kandiyohi Area Transit shuttle system that connects Sonshiners to businesses and eateries on First Street will operate again this year, Poe said.

When the last band has played and the final camper gone home, Poe said he expects to be happy once again with this year's festival.

"We've had so many people who've been with us for so long and they know what to do and we've always benefited from great volunteer and community support," he said.

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