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The week-long Sturgis Motorcycle Rally—which takes place every August—attracts a crowd nearly 10 times the size of Sturgis, S.D. Photo: Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

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.