STURGIS – Attendance at this year’s Sturgis motorcycle rally was down 11 percent or about 50,000 from a year ago, officials estimate.
Despite the drop, Sturgis city officials said Tuesday that they were pleased with the turnout at this year’s 71th annual gathering.
Brenda Vasknetz, Sturgis rally department director, said the drop in attendance was expected since the 2011 rally followed the 70th anniversary year. She said other factors contributing to the downturn were the weak economy, high gas prices and Missouri River flooding.
According to rally officials, 416,727 people attended the 2011 rally, which was down by 50,042 people from the previous year. By comparison, however, the numbers are far below the 633,000 people who visited during the 60th rally in 2000.
When calculating rally attendance, the city of Sturgis looks at tonnage of garbage hauled out of town, vendor licenses issued, South Dakota Department of Transportation traffic counts for Sturgis and at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and the amount of state sales tax collected.
This year’s garbage haul was 511.79 tons, down 12.24 percent from 2010. In addition, 727 vendor licenses were issued, down from 761 last year. The DOT counted 415,367 vehicles throughout the Black Hills, down from 459,968 from the year before. Mount Rushmore saw 55,556 visitors this year, as compared to 67,130 last year. Finally, the state collected $411,466 in sales tax, down by 9.96 percent over 2010.
The decline in numbers was expected by the city, including the decrease in vendor licenses that were issued. According to Constituent Services coordinator Christina Steele, the city had budgeted for less revenue this year, so the decline in sales tax and vendor fees will not hurt the city.
“We knew it would be down due to the state of the economy in general,” Steele said. “We knew it would be down so we didn’t budget for any big capital improvements. We stayed pretty conservative.”
The drop in attendance did not hurt local businesses as much as expected, however. Chamber of Commerce director Lisa Weyer said that fewer people made it easier for them to get around and shop.
“It was a good year and sales were good,” Weyer said. “When you have a smaller crowd, it makes more room for visitors to move about and shop, and that’s the trend that was seen this year. There are pros and cons to the attendance numbers being down, but it allowed for more normal visitor functions to take place.”
Law enforcement, however, said the decline in attendance at the rally was not reflected in their numbers.
Sturgis Police Chief Jim Bush said the police department had 1,376 calls for service this year, as compared to 1,145 in 2010. Non traffic-related arrests were up by 44 from last year and traffic arrests were up by 60 over last year. The police issued 37 more parking tickets this year and jailed eight more people.
Even though the majority of their categories were up this year, a handful of them were down, including possession of illegal drugs and alcohol offenses, though those still remain their higher categories.
Bush said he is not sure that there can be one factor that is attributed to the change in numbers, though the crowd seems to change each year. One thing is for sure, the crowds are getting older, he said.
“It seems like the average biker is not a kid anymore so I don’t know if that has something to do with it,” Bush said. “But 416,000 is still a lot of people, so I don’t know if any one thing can contribute to that other than the average age of the crowd.”
Bush said they dealt mainly with locals, which he defined as being people who live within a three-hour drive of Sturgis. This year the police department dealt with 43 more locals than they did last year.
“Maybe the crowd is getting to be more local,” Bush said. “Maybe they decided to come here for three or four days rather than go on a big vacation. I’m sure the economy drives that more than anything.”