DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — The Detroit Lakes economy has been enjoying a brief boom this week thanks to the thousands of country music fans in town for WE Fest — though reports from local business and community leaders suggest the boom isn’t as big as it used to be.

It’s difficult to put a specific dollar amount on WE Fest’s total economic impact, but it’s safe to say it’s significant. The tourism industry as a whole brings more than $70 million into Becker County every year, according to Explore Minnesota, and it’s widely assumed that the multi-day, crowd-swarming WE Fest makes up a large slice of that pie.

Just how large? No one seems to know for sure.

Multiple economic development and tourism industry professionals from the city, county and state were interviewed for this story, and none could produce any hard numbers about the festival's impact. The company that owns WE Fest, Townsquare Media, did not respond to requests for information.

“No study has ever been done (on WE Fest’s economic impact), that I know of,” says Ryan Pesch, who works in community economic development for the University of Minnesota’s Regional Extension office in Moorhead.

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Pesch says money spent by, at and around WE Fest likely has a strong “ripple effect” throughout the Detroit Lakes area, since this longtime tourist destination is well-suited to serving visitors with its array of restaurants, stores and recreational opportunities.

But with substantiated data lacking, Pesch adds, “I have no idea” what the actual financial impact is.

“There’s really no barometer,” says Detroit Lakes Mayor Matt Brenk. “But I do know that we wouldn’t want to lose it, because I know that it helps the town.”

Plenty of business owners agree with Brenk on that, though some benefit from the festival more than others.

Steve Larson, the manager of Seven Sisters Spirits, said WE Fest is the liquor store’s “second busiest week of the year,” right behind the Fourth of July. “It’s a very good week for us.”

Store staff prepares for the extra customer traffic well in advance of the festival, stocking up on inventory — especially beer and ice, which are always popular with WE Fest-goers — and scheduling additional staff. They also run special promotions to appeal to the WE Fest crowd, such as holding liquor samplings during the day and hosting live radio broadcasts.

“We try to get in the spirit … We embrace it,” says Larson. “We love it.”

Area liquor stores stock up on beer and other beverages in anticipation of big sales during WE Fest. Pictured are stacks of different beer brands at Seven Sisters Spirits on Thursday. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)
Area liquor stores stock up on beer and other beverages in anticipation of big sales during WE Fest. Pictured are stacks of different beer brands at Seven Sisters Spirits on Thursday. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)

The same is true at the city’s municipal liquor store, Lakes Liquor, where this year John Rich, of superstar country duo Big & Rich, was scheduled for a WE Fest weekend appearance. Manager Randy Buhr says the store always sees heavier traffic than usual during the festival. He brings in extra inventory and staff to keep a handle on things.

Local gas stations also report increased sales and the need to stock up. Jayde Pickar, of Holiday Gas Station on Frazee Street, says the impact of WE Fest is undeniable.

“Our order this week was double what it normally is,” Pickar says. That order included snacks, beverages and pretty much everything that’s in the store — including plenty of extra cigarettes and chewing tobacco, which he says are always highly requested during WE Fest.

Coolers, camp chairs, tents, sleeping bags and food items are other popular purchases around the time of the festival, according to Chris Malecka, manager of the Detroit Lakes Walmart.

“The team has a lot of fun planning for it,” he says of the WE Fest rush, adding that he keeps “all hands on deck” to serve the influx of additional customers.

The Detroit Lakes Community Center sees an influx, as well, with WE Fest-goers buying day passes to use the showers. Rachel Loreth, the front desk coordinator at the Center, estimates that about 150 to 200 additional people visit the Center every day of WE Fest.

“We prepare by getting an area for hair and makeup set up for the ladies,” Loreth says. “We’ve got a cellphone charging station, and we offer locks and towels and all the amenities for the shower.”

“The numbers have gone down progressively over the years, though,” she adds, “with WE Fest ramping up their efforts over there.”

Crowd stays at festival

WE Fest has evolved into a more independent event over its 35-plus years, according to local business and community insiders. Especially in recent years, they say, the festival has been offering more amenities and services on site. That's resulted in fewer people leaving the festival grounds to do their eating and shopping, lessening the event's economic impact on the Detroit Lakes area.

“The event is pretty insular,” says Becker County Economic Development Authority Director Guy Fischer. “The camp is on site, the food is on site … It was a little more plugged into the community a little while back.”

That self-containment means “the retail impact has changed,” says Detroit Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce President Carrie Johnston. “But the restaurants and gas stations and hotels still see a lot of really good impact from WE Fest.”

Perkins, for example, sees a definite spike in business. Manager Stephanie Knuttila says the Detroit Lakes restaurant puts out a special menu just for festival-goers, so the restaurant can be sure to stock up on those particular menu items.

“So it’s quick for the kitchen and we have everything on hand,” Knuttila says. “We’re trying to make it so there’s not a long wait.”

Other restaurants, such as Lakeside Tavern and Long Bridge, say it’s not necessarily busier during WE Fest, but the flow of business changes, and there are a lot of new faces around.

“It kind of flip-flops our business,” says Long Bridge Manager Scott Jereska. “The day side is generally a little busier than the night side, wherein during the main course of the year, the night side is generally busier than the day side.”

“It’s pretty much the same,” says Paige Blonigan, operations manager at Lakeside. “In the summer, we’re pretty busy anyway … But (during WE Fest) a lot of out-of-towners come during the day to eat, then it slows down a little bit at night. The locals come in at night, then — it seems like they stay away more during the days.”

Blonigan says WE Fest traffic at Lakeside used to be heavier than it is now. In the past, the restaurant would open an hour earlier during the festival to accommodate the ‘morning-after’ concertgoers, "but we don't do that anymore," she says. “I’ve noticed that it’s slowed down since they’ve been cracking down on drinking and driving and DUIs.”

Natalee Yocom, the manager at Pizza Hut in Detroit Lakes, has noticed a major slowdown there.

Up until recently, “every WE Fest killed,” she says. “We’d have extra staff on, a line out the door. But after it got sold … the last two years have been dead. We’re busier during a snowstorm in winter.”

“It was such a disappointment,” she adds of the change in WE Fest traffic. “We love those people and we love packing ‘em in here.”

WE Fest is ranked No. 3 on Explore Minnesota’s list of Top Ten attractions in the northwest region of the state. The festival was started in 1983 by local man Jeff Krueger, and is now one of the biggest country music festivals in the country. It was sold to Townsquare Media, a Connecticut-based media company, in 2014.