Jul 13, 2023
City of Sturgis, vendors report solid, if slowed, turnout for motorcycle rally
STURGIS, S.D. — The 83rd annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally has been punctuated by intermittent drenching rain and cloudless sunshine. Despite the weather, and a steady decline in attendance since the
STURGIS, S.D. — The 83rd annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally has been punctuated by intermittent drenching rain and cloudless sunshine.
Despite the weather, and a steady decline in attendance since the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of vendors lined the streets, hawking patches, motorcycle parts and food, as they've done since the rally was first formed in 1938.
Officials in the city of Sturgis, which earned about $1.54 million in tax revenue from the 2022 rally, say this year will be another solid one.
Sturgis Director of Planning and Permitting Dave Smith tallied up the number of vendor permits to 742 for the 2023 rally. That number is largely on track with previous years, he said.
Of those 742 permits, 375 were temporary permits licensed to non-Sturgis resident businesses. This is not an atypical spread of permits, Smith said. Dozens of vendors come from out of state to sell their wares, from food vendors to motorcycle part retailers.
Smith helped permit 65 food vendor licenses, 32 ATM licenses and 139 vendor licenses given to bartenders and sexually oriented performers, who largely consist of dancers at the several saloons in the city.
A majority of tattoo artists at the rally were already licensed with the city, Smith said, given that most of them are local artists operating out of one of the three full-time tattoo shops in town.
Under South Dakota law, the city can only use permitting fees to charge for its expenses, and the largest expense to the city during the rally, Smith said, comes from garbage.
For one 10-by-10-foot lot, a business permitting license for a vendor permit costs $560, and the sanitation fee portion of that license is just over 56% of the total vendor permit cost.
“That $560 the vendor pays to the city to have the license, the vendor fee itself is $242.79,” Smith said.
The vendor fee is what goes to the city for use for paying city employee salaries and other administrative costs.
At this point during the rally, Smith said the city of Sturgis has generated about $500,000 in fees.
The hundreds of pop-up vendors and more than half a million visitors eating, drinking and shopping in a fewer than 10,000 population city generate exponentially more waste than usual, Smith said.
That extra waste comes out to about 500 tons more than usual on an average year.
The sheer amount of waste collected during the rally is one of the main ways the city tracks its population of attendees. As the rally continues, the city of Sturgis counts the tonnage of garbage collected to help assess attendance rates.
While the city of Sturgis is still tallying its trash numbers, the South Dakota Department of Transportation is doing their own calculations. As of Wednesday, Aug. 9, the South Dakota Department of Transportation totaled the number of vehicles at the rally at 250,699. That is almost 40,000 fewer vehicles than the five-year average of 290,671.
Cody Walker is working a booth on Main Street selling leather goods and handcrafted knives, and he said the rain didn’t seem to put much of a damper on attendance. Walker has been working this booth at the rally since 2017, and this year didn’t seem too much different from those previous.
Still, he said he doesn’t expect another surge of visitors.
“Some people come for two weekends, other people come for just one of the two, but you always tend to see fewer people at the end of the rally,” Walker said.
With another four days of the rally left, last year’s total of 505,000 attendees does not seem like a likely goal, Walker said. But, luckily for him and other vendors, the rain did not seem to be too much of a deterrent.
"Business is still good," Walker said.
Every year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the population of the rally has plateaued at around 500,000 attendees. Officials from the Department of Revenue estimated a surge in attendance post-pandemic, but the real number came out to about 525,000. That is significantly fewer than the 747,302 visitors that attended the 2015 rally.