Sturgis, South Dakota: Small town revs up for big biker crowd
What would you do if a crowd of rough-cut, road-worn bikers nearly 100 times your city's total population showed up on your doorstep for a week-long visit? If you're the leaders of Sturgis, S.D., you welcome them with open arms.
Sturgis—a city of about 6500 residents nestled in the Black Hills—hosted its 65th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in 2005. The inaugural rally in 1938 was put on by Pappy Hoel and other founding members of the Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club. The meager gathering consisted of a race with nine participants and a handful of spectators. The rally has since grown to a weeklong event attracting more than half a million visitors each year from all over the world, and it includes races, concerts, and scores of other attractions. The event brings a healthy chunk of tax revenue from merchandise sales, food vendors, and increased attendance at local campgrounds.
How does a modest-sized metropolis handle such a gargantuan affair? In a word, according to city engineer Bob Kaufman: planning.
“Preparation is a year-round process,” said Kaufman. “Right after each year's event, the city management team meets to discuss what went right and what needs improving. Recommendations are made to the appropriate committees and the city council. Our solutions for these challenges have evolved over years of experience and a lot of trial and error.”
One of the biggest challenges Sturgis leaders tackle is traffic control, both in the town and surrounding area. In addition to motorcycles, the rally brings scores of automobiles, delivery trucks, and pedestrians to local streets, a state highway, and Interstate 90. “To assist in traffic flow, we install a series of stop signs at key locations,” said Kaufman. “The South Dakota DOT places staff who manually control traffic lights at a key intersection with 1–90. Traffic flows change each year based upon activities and events scheduled in the surrounding areas as well as activities within Sturgis.”
All construction within the city is scheduled around the event. Most construction shuts down for the week, in part due to the difficulty of getting materials to jobsites.
Waste handling also demands special attention. “Trash removal requires a complete rescheduling of city staff,” said Kaufman. “Each night at 2 a.m., all motorcycles must be removed from Main Street for street cleaning. City crews clean the sidewalks, followed by street sweepers to remove the trash, and finally the street is washed down prior to reopening at 6 a.m.”
Collection trucks work overtime to ensure that trash from rally vendors is picked up, and that regular collection for local citizens is not interrupted. The city also has a contract with a private supplier for addition portable toilets.
Safety is another concern. Kaufman's normal daily responsibilities include overseeing the Building Inspections Department, which takes on additional staff during the rally to inspect the 900 temporary vendor stands. Inspectors monitor compliance with local safety codes for fire-resistant tents and tarps, setbacks from street and alleys, and keeping the sidewalks open. The police department hires additional officers to aid in crowd control, and the city, vendors, and private landowners hire security staff. Also, the Sturgis Fire Department— staffed by volunteers—hires temporary, full-time firemen to quicken response times and keep equipment ready, and the city's ambulance service hires additional emergency medical technicians to ensure full staffing.
To deal with communications and public relations issues, the town created the City of Sturgis Rally Department. Director Lisa Weyer oversees public relations efforts, advertising, handling of questions and concerns from vendors (including the 100 or so sited on city property), and promotion of city-sponsored activities, such as the Mayor's Ride, Golden Knights' Jump, and Vendor Reception. The department serves as an important point of communication for townspeople, producers, and attendees.
The people of Sturgis benefit from the presence of their rally-going guests. In addition to sales tax revenue generated by the event, many local churches, service organizations, and youth groups profit by providing breakfast throughout the week. And while the event unavoidably disrupts normal daily life for local citizens, they've learned to adapt.
“Local people learn to get their daily errands done early in the morning before traffic congestion begins,” said Kaufman. “Many local citizens take on part-time jobs working for the vendors that come in for the event, most of the citizens stay home and put up with the week, and some take vacation that week to get away from the chaos.”
Throughout the rest of the year, the Sturgis area hosts a number of other events, but none of them rival the size and scope of the motorcycle rally. One other nationwide draw is the National Sheepdog Trials—which attract a completely different kind of animalMardi Gras—an event without equal
As part of this report, we had originally intended to cover the impact of Mardi Gras on New Orleans. Following Hurricane Katrina, for obvious reasons, that was no longer appropriate. In the past, Mardi Gras has doubled New Orleans' population and generated more than $1 billion in annual spending. When Mardi Gras will return as the “greatest free show on earth,” is unknown, but return it will. Concerns for transportation, waste management, and crowd control will seem simple and even welcome after Katrina's very unwelcome visit.