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Work on this year's Sonshine Festival stages and lighting was well under way by early Monday afternoon at the Willmar Civic Center. A free concert Wednesday night kicks off the full festival that runs from Thursday through Saturday. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

Free concert Wednesday kicks off Sonshine

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WILLMAR -- Starting today, an estimated 20,000 people will make their way to Willmar for one of the largest Christian music festivals in the United States.

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The camping area opens today, and the 29th annual Sonshine Festival will begin Wednesday evening with a free concert by Remedy Drive and Family Force 5. Before the festival ends on Saturday evening, 171 bands will perform, the most the festival has ever hosted, according to festival director Bob Poe.

Big-name Christian artists at the festival this year include Casting Crowns, David Crowder Band, newsboys, Superchick, Sanctus Real and Thousand Foot Krutch. Skillet, a two-time Grammy nominee Christian rock band, will close the festival on Saturday evening.

"There will be lots of music, of course," Poe said. "All the bands are different and bring different styles of music. These are the bands drawing large crowds across the country. They're the bands everyone wants to hear."

Besides the music, Sonshine also has various other entertainment on-site during the event. New to the festival this year will be a skateboard organization called Self Destruct, featuring five skateboarders, two of them professionals, who will put on demonstrations and allow people to use their equipment.

"One (skateboarder) has even jumped a bus on a skateboard," Poe said.

On Friday night, after the newsboys perform, people can stick around and view a showing of "Evan Almighty," a modern-day Noah's Ark comedy starring Steve Carell. The movie will be shown on the festival's two 20-by-20-feet jumbotron screens. In past years, the festival has had only one jumbo screen.

"It will be kind of a cool night," Poe said, adding that there will be plenty of popcorn available for festival-goers.

Sonshine has also added an additional stage this year, the Show Mobile Stage. On Thursday morning, 20 bands from around the Midwest will being competing on the stage for a chance to perform on the Main Stage later in the festival.

But before any of the bands can take any of the festival's six stages, hours of planning and preparation must be done to ensure the three-day festival runs as smoothly as possible.

Early Monday morning, a crew of about 70 people began working to assemble stages, run sound checks and install lighting for the festival. The crew will continue working through Wednesday, but the grounds will be ready to go for the evening concert, Poe said.

Once the festival begins, more than 800 volunteers will work long hours to run the festival, helping to sell tickets, watch the gates and direct parking and camping. Many volunteers come from around the area, Poe said, but some come from outside of Minnesota to help with the festival.

Security will also be high at the event, with three different groups patrolling the area 24/7. About 140 security volunteers come from a private crew in the Twin Cities, and the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Reserve and the Willmar Police Department will also send officers out to the grounds.

Today, campers can begin arriving to pitch their tents on the 50 acres surrounding the Civic Center, known as Tent City to veteran Sonshiners. This year, about 10,000 people -- half of the expected attendees -- will be staying on the festival grounds.

Sonshine has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a mid-summer event for Willmar area children, Poe said. Now, it's become one of the premier Christian music events in the country, and people of all ages come to enjoy the atmosphere, the food and, of course, the music.

"People from all over have heard of Sonshine," Poe said. "It's brought Willmar to circles we probably wouldn't be in otherwise."

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