STURGIS — While the city of Sturgis wrestles with what to do with this year’s Rally, area businesses are making plans to serve the bikers when they come.
“Everybody who has contacted me said they are coming, no matter what,” said Rick Arneson, owner of the Iron Horse Campground just outside of Sturgis. “We’ve had a few cancellations, but I have a waiting list of people waiting to take their spot.”
Arneson said based on his reservations, he predicts this year’s Rally will see between 400,000 to 500,000 people.
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Rod Woodruff, owner of the Buffalo Chip Campground, which has become famous for hosting thousands of bikers and providing entertainment in a variety of forms including major concerts and motorcycle races, said while it is too early to make estimates about this year’s Rally, one thing that is certain is that this year will be different. There was never a question for Woodruff about whether he would host the bikers this year.
“We have a lot of people with reservations and we have a responsibility to have our event go on,” Woodruff said. “Is it going to be the same as before? Probably not. Is it going to be smaller? Absolutely. But we told those people we would be there for them.”
The city of Sturgis has said that it will make a final determination about officially hosting the Rally at its meeting June 15. But regardless of that decision, many believe that bikers will still plan to come for the 80th annual event. Many Sturgis businesses point to this inevitability with the strong start to the state’s regular tourism season.
“It isn’t just the bikers who are coming anyway,” Woodruff said. “You have tourists who are coming anyway. The (state) tourism department has started a promotion and in the middle of the month they are planning to accelerate the promotion to bring people to see these great faces and great places.”
Dean Kinney, president and CEO of Homeslice Group, which owns the Loud American Roadhouse, a popular biker destination on Main Street in Sturgis, agreed that tourism season is in full swing and all indications are that the bikers will be part of tourism this year. However, he stressed that his businesses will respect whatever decision the city makes June 15.
“Indicators are that we are having a strong start to tourism, especially in light of the COVID crisis,” Kinney said. “I anticipate because we’re seeing that, that we’re also going to see a sizable amount of Rally goers, regardless of what the decision is on June 15. So, therefore we think the most important and responsible thing to do is to prepare for a Rally. Unlike an event that is largely gated, you can’t really turn the Rally on or off. We think the more important thing is to prepare for the Rally and to have the safest, best Rally we can have.”
Kinney also stressed that Sturgis businesses are conscious of preserving health. The decision to move forward is a difficult one, as businesses balance the economy with health factors.
“I think there might be a perception in much of the public that downtown Sturgis business owners are hell bent to go forward no matter what,” Kinney said. “I think that’s false. I’ve been meeting a lot with other Rally businesses, and I think everyone agrees that we have to watch what the statistics say and what is happening. We’re not deniers that the COVID crisis is very real. But we’re also hopeful by some things we see that cases are diminishing rapidly across the country.”
Bryan Carter, manager and co-owner of the Knuckle Saloon also acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic is one that should be taken seriously. On the other hand, he said, there’s not a lot of social distancing going on in everyday activities right now.
“We’re planning on normal,” Carter said. “I think if people are scared, they won’t come and I think if people aren’t feeling well they won’t come. We’re going to do more hand sanitizing here and there and just do the best we can with it. I don’t call Wal-Mart social distancing, and that is what has made me so mad about this whole deal. I was in Menards four weeks ago and I had to park by the road. There is no social distancing going on there.”
Carter, Kinney, and Woodruff, all whose businesses have become Rally attractions with an assortment of entertainment, food and drinks, all said they will be doing things a bit differently this year to respect CDC guidelines. In addition to providing plenty of hand sanitizer, they intend to place tables at least six feet apart. Woodruff said he will encourage his campers to stay six feet apart from each other at vendor booths, and he invited bikers to enjoy the party from the comfort of their own motorcycle. But realistically, he said, people don’t go places to be socially distant.
“It’s a bit of an oxymoron,” he said of the term. “There is nothing sociable about distance. People want to be together. We are outdoors, in the fresh air.”
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Woodruff, whose venue is well known for the major concerts it brings in during the Rally, said there has never been a guarantee for specific concerts. The venue has long held a no-refund policy for acts that may have to cancel due to weather or other concerns, and this year will be no different.
“We’ll have our event and we’re not cancelling anything,” he said. “Concerts are part of it. You might think locally that this is just a concert deal. It’s not just a concert deal. We have all kinds of other things going on here. We’re first and foremost a campground. The concerts and stuff, we’ll see how that goes. Does that mean your favorite artist is going to make it? Maybe not. But there’s no guarantee of that, ever.”
Jesse James Dupree, co-owner of the Full Throttle Saloon and Pappy Hoel Campground pointed out a federal ruling from the 8th Circuit Court, which addressed the use of Rally trademarks. In that document the court ruled that the city of Sturgis’ involvement and authority over the Rally does not extend past providing municipal services.
The ruling states, “We agree and hold that the jury could not infer from the onerous planning that the City undertakes to provide infrastructure for the rally that the city was the organizer or sponsor of the Rally.”
Therefore, Dupree said he does not believe the city has the power to cancel or postpone the 80th event, and thus the Full Throttle Saloon is moving forward with its full lineup of entertainment and events.
“We’re hearing from all the other campgrounds, as well as our Pappy Hoel campers, that everyone is still planning on coming to this event,” Dupree said. “We’re not only celebrating the 80th anniversary, we’re also celebrating America’s resilience. The Black Hills are already experiencing larger than normal turnouts from tourists. The Pappy Hoel Campground has enjoyed a relationship with the city of Sturgis over the last couple of years. The city of Sturgis is taking this year’s Rally very serious on behalf of its citizens as well as its corporate sponsors. It’s very, very important to point out that no one owns the 80th anniversary of this Rally. No one can postpone or cancel the 80th anniversary of this Rally. … It belongs to the people. It’s about celebrating the freedom to ride a motorcycle in the Black Hills of South Dakota.”
Overall, Woodruff said he appreciates that Gov. Kristi Noem has been consistent in her position to let South Dakota businesses make informed decisions about how to operate during this pandemic.
“It’s what Kristi said early on. The government’s role is not to run people’s lives, but to give them information by which they can make informed decisions,” Woodruff said. “Beyond that, it’s a personal responsibility. We have a very conscientious political structure here in South Dakota, and that’s because of the people we have here. They’re respectful of people’s civil rights and their right to freedom. We’re here, every year we have a freedom celebration. I’m not cancelling that sucker for any virus.”
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