In the muggy Monday afternoon heat of downtown Sturgis, John Schneck stood beneath the Sturgis Swap vendor tent selling helmets to a couple from Mandan, N.D.
On the table in front of him lay a wide array of merchandise, from snow globes to pins to shot glasses. All bore the official Sturgis trademark tag and hologram.
Schneck said he has never been to a motorcycle rally that carries so much trademarked merchandise. Most rallies mainly trademark official T-shirts, he said.
On Sunday, a group calling itself the Concerned Citizens for Sturgis called for a boycott of all that trademarked merchandise, as well as a boycott of four Black Hills businesses with links to the official licensing board, Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, Inc. (SMRi).
Schneck said customers haven’t said a word about the boycott, buying official merchandise at a normal rate. “Nobody seems to really care,” he said.
The North Dakota couple, Jamie and Tammy Wilson, wasn’t aware of the boycott, but said they probably wouldn’t support one anyway. “The town needs to prosper off of this,” Jamie Wilson said.
The call for a boycott evolves from a trademark battle brewing in Sturgis for more than 10 years.
Throughout the 2000s, the Sturgis Chamber of Commerce trademarked rally-related names. Vendors such as Hot Leathers/Good Sports and Black Hills Harley-Davidson fought the trademark in a legal battle that cost the chamber thousands in legal fees, said SMRi board member John Johnson.
The chamber eventually settled, selling the trademark to the newly formed nonprofit SMRi. Suddenly, former opponents of the trademark became supporters, with Jim Burgess of Black Hills Harley-Davidson and Jerry Berkowitz of Hot Leathers joining SMRi as board members.
Dean Kinney, a board member of SMRi and owner of Home Slice in Sturgis, said the change of circumstances prompted the switch. Berkowitz in particular liked the idea of a non-profit holding the licensing rights rather than a chamber of commerce, Kinney said. That way, profits from licensing could go back to the community. “He understood that vision and that’s what brought us together,” Kinney said. Berkowitz did not return calls to the Journal.
Competing vendors, including Concerned Citizens co-founder Ken Mortimer, argue that Berkowitz simply changed sides in order to control competition. “He basically can’t compete at the rally so he’s trying to lock out everyone else,” said Mortimer, who owns Renegade Classics in California.
Concerned Citizens for Sturgis urged people Sunday to avoid purchasing licensed products during the rally to show their opposition to trademarking rally names and their concern over Hot Leather’s “conflict of interest.”
They also called for a boycott of businesses owned by SMRi board members, including Black Hills Harley-Davidson, Home Slice, Hot Leather/Good Sports and First Interstate Bank.
Kinney calls the boycott “unprofessional” and indicative of a group of people who don’t really care about the future of the rally.
“We’re still talking about a very small group of people … riling up the media on a daily basis,” Kinney said. “It comes down to, he (Mortimer) doesn’t want to pay.”
Brian Niemann of Rushmore Photo & Gifts, who co-founded the Concerned Citizens for Sturgis group with Mortimer and is locked in a lawsuit with SMRi over the trademark, argues that his group cares about Sturgis.
“Let me be clear: We are not calling for a boycott of Sturgis, but of the people involved in this malicious organization trying to monopolize on the Sturgis rally,” said Niemann.
Although SMRi promises to return royalty fees to the community and to promote the rally, Niemann doesn’t believe that Sturgis will benefit in the long run.
“The boycott is the people’s voice stating ‘we don’t like this; we agree with them, and this is wrong,’” Niemann said. “Their actions are going to destroy the rally. We’re getting in people’s faces that this needs to change.”
Kinney said the boycott message is negative and “lowers the bar of rhetoric,” something his group has sought to avoid.
“The vast majority of Sturgis vendors are licensed. I don’t know how they think they can get everybody to boycott everything in Sturgis. We expect retail shops to sell licensed products,” Kinney said. “You’re hurting that business, its employees, the economy and the entire rally.”
Johnson, president of First Interstate Bank, was especially discouraged to see his bank listed on the boycott list. “I serve on this board as a member of the community, not representing the bank,” he said.
He believes the community will stand by him and the bank, especially after 34 years in Sturgis.
While Concerned Citizens claims that the boycott originates from a “groundswell of bikers from around the country,” Kinney believes that is an overstatement. “I don’t think there’s a groundswell. It looks to me that there’s a handful of people who don’t want to pay a royalty and majority that we’ve made a deal with,” Kinney said.
In the end, the dispute will not only be decided in the courts, but in the opinions of rally attendees, said Paul Niemann, another co-founder of the group. “They have to make a choice, everybody has free choice. Do you want to participate in this controlled environment or reject it? We say the best avenue is to reject it,” Niemann said. “Sturgis has always been a symbol of freedom, openness and variety. And just recently that attitude is trying to be changed drastically.”
Kinney and Johnson see it quite differently.
“We’ve spent our life trying to make Sturgis a better place to live,” Johnson said. Part of that is improving and maintaining the reputation of the rally.
“It’s a popular event that needs to be nurtured and made better and better over time,” Kinney said.
Any improvements will benefit the community, something out-of-state businesses don’t seem to care about, Kinney said.
“Really, the only thing they’re worried about is profit,” he said.
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