The people of Sturgis had weighed in on whether to hold its iconic motorcycle rally this year, and their answer was an overwhelming “no.”
More than half of the community of nearly 7,000 people expressed their feelings in a survey, sent to them by city hall in self-addressed envelopes, about the idea of hosting thousands of bikers during the coronavirus pandemic.
A sizable majority, 62%, asked city officials to postpone the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the single biggest driver of tourism in South Dakota.
Reacting to the survey, city leaders discussed the possibility of postponing or canceling this year’s event, which marks the 80th anniversary of the rally.
And then they got a letter.
Sent by attorneys for an outside business, a Rapid City-based gifts wholesaler, the letter contained threats of litigation unless the rally moved forward, said Daniel Ainslie, Sturgis’ city manager.
“I would just say that along with many other items that were brought into consideration when the council made their decision, there were a lot of very concerning items that were brought forward and then ultimately led the council to make the best choice they felt they had available to them,” Ainslie said.
Little more than a week after discussing the possibility of putting off the event until 2021, the Sturgis City Council instead approved it and city resources to assist in hosting this year’s rally, though with changes intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
But even with additional safety measures, the City Council’s decision to support a modified version of the Sturgis rally came as a surprise to Matthew Valades.
Valades, who lives in North Carolina, has been worried about his 94-year-old grandfather, a resident of the western South Dakota town. His father, his uncle and his aunt have been making rotating trips to Sturgis to care for him, and Valades has been in contact with local officials since the decision to host the rally.
“It seemed like everyone in the town was kind of thinking they would postpone it, seemed to think that would make the most sense,” Valades said. “Then the decision came on June 15 and it seemed like people were sort of shocked that they elected to hold the modified rally.”
In response to Valades’ inquiries, at least two city councilors and Ainslie alluded to the letter or legal threats from the attorney for Rapid City-based company Rushmore Photos & Gifts, which wholesales Sturgis-related gifts and merchandise to other retailers.
Rushmore Photos & Gifts was the defendant in a licensing lawsuit filed by Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Inc. in an attempt to protect licensed Sturgis merchandise. But a federal judge for the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that no single entity “owns, produces or operates” the rally.
Brian Niemann, president of Rushmore Photos & Gifts, said his company’s attorneys were only trying to alert Sturgis city officials to potential litigation from other retailers, campgrounds and hotels.
“The letter was not threatening, it just made them aware of the Eighth Circuit’s ruling on the rally,” Niemann said. “We didn’t want them getting themselves in any legal trouble. That’s kind of what they were inadvertently stepping into. Making a decision they didn’t have a right to make.”
In the letter sent to Sturgis city officials, attorney Eric Chadwick said the city has every right to not participate in this year’s event, but would be “subject to claims of liability from my clients” if city hall acted as if it had the authority to postpone the rally or brand it as something besides the 80th anniversary event.
The Sturgis rally is the single biggest event in the state, drawing nearly a half-million people last year. This year’s anniversary rally had been gearing up to be the biggest yet before the pandemic changed everything, Ainslie said.
The plan approved by city officials last month includes measures to limit the spread of coronavirus and maintain protections for Sturgis residents.
People who call Sturgis home year-round won’t have to risk leaving their home due to the Sturgis Good Deeds program, which commits city staff to helping with contactless shopping and delivery shopping services free of charge, Ainslie said.
“We want to ensure that residents don’t have to leave the safety of their house,” he said.
Sturgis City Hall will not play an active role in advertising this year’s event. The city is typically the rally’s primary promoter. Leaders also agreed to cancel most of the city-hosted rides, except for the Mayor’s Ride, as well as racing at the fairgrounds and the B-1 Bomber flyover.
There will also be no 5-kilometer runs or parades at this year’s rally. But by agreeing to assist in hosting, the city of Sturgis will be able to provide police and other public safety measures during the event and coordinate with the Department of Health in outlining coronavirus prevention measures for vendors and providing masks and sanitation gear to businesses and visitors, Ainslie said.
But Valades is still concerned about his grandfather.
“It seems to me the town was effectively bullied into doing this from the side of people wanting to come and the side of businesses in the town who are going to be open either way,” Valades said.