STURGIS, S.D. — Mitchell Anglin and Judd Crowser maneuvered a bucket truck along Junction Avenue on Monday morning, hauling down banners that welcomed bikers to the 79th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
The small number of cars, trucks and motorcycles that veered around the stationary city truck Monday stood in contrast to the hordes of rumbling motorcycles that filled the street a few days earlier.
But with the rally officially ending its 10-day run Sunday, traffic gradually returned to small-town normal in Sturgis.
"Frankly, I’m kind of glad it’s over,” Anglin said, referring not just to the rally but also to the long hours of work put in by city crews, including overnight cleanups of Main Street downtown that started at 2 a.m.
“It’s not that the work is that hard,” Anglin said. “It’s the hours that you put in.”
City crews will have their hands full for the next several days, but once the city is back to its late-summer routine, work will continue for rally planners to assess the 2019 event and continue preparations for next year’s milestone 80th rally, set for Aug. 7-16, 2020.
The general consensus is that the 2019 Sturgis rally was slower in terms of attendance, continuing a trend of other rallies seeing fewer numbers, both preceding and following the landmark years ending in five or zero.
An indicator of a downturn in attendance can be seen in a lower number of traffic fatalities associated with the rally.
This year's two highway deaths were a 29-year-old Oklahoma man killed Monday, Aug. 5, when his motorcycle skidded off road south of Lead, and a 59-year-old Nebraska woman who died on Friday, three days after her motorcycle collided with another motorcycle west of Lead.
An Omaha man died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his motor home at a Sturgis campground.
The number of traffic facilities is the lowest since 2014, when two motorcyclists died. The years 2008 and 2009 saw one fatality each, according to figures provided by the Department of Public Safety.
Traffic counts saw numbers of vehicles entering Sturgis topping or staying level with last year’s totals through the first four days of the rally, then tailing off.
Sunday’s total of 55,551 cars, trucks, motor homes and motorcycles was 6.5% higher than the same day last year, while numbers on both Wednesday and Thursday showed significant declines from 2018.
Wednesday’s count of 56,204 was down 7.3%, and Thursday’s 54,540 marked an 8.5% decline.
Law enforcement officials also reported a jump in arrests for misdemeanor alcohol and drug violations, including a near-doubling of felony drug arrests.
According to the Highway Patrol, felony drug arrests through 6 a.m. Friday totaled 90 for the Sturgis and Rapid City areas compared with 56 in 2018.
However, Highway Patrol Capt. Jason Ketterling said in an email that it is difficult for one conclusion to fit all circumstances in arrests. Drug use appears to be on the rise nationwide, he said.
"Therefore, troopers appear to be encountering drugs more frequently on traffic stops, which in turn increases enforcement results," he said.
Officers said the high traffic counts at the start of the rally jump-started the increase in arrests, which held up for the remainder of the week.
This year was the second rally officially beginning on Friday instead of the following Monday, with a continuation of the trend of visitors coming earlier.
In term of those traffic counts, city manager Daniel Ainslie called the number of motorcycles entering Sturgis for opening weekend “incredibly high.”
“A lot of people indicated it was even higher than the 75th. Main Street was packed,” Ainslie said. “It just showed what the overall trend was, is that the rally is starting earlier.”
Ainslie said the city uses six methods to estimate attendance:
- South Dakota Department of Public Safety traffic counters set up at nine entrances to the city;
- Garbage collected in the city during the rally;
- An actual count of motorcycles and other vehicles in designated parking areas away from Main Street;
- Counts of people in photographs of the same site within Sturgis, taken several times each day.
- Numbers of motorcycles parked in gated parking lots at Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
- Overall Department of Revenue sales tax revenues collected from temporary sales tax licenses sold for the rally.
Ainslie said trash tonnage from the opening days of the rally also showed an increase over the same period last year.
Although no figures were included, Ainslie said the city uses a formula of 4.1 pounds of trash generated by each person per day to estimate attendance, although he said, wet weather can skew the weight of trash by altering its moisture content.
As of Friday, the city had received 635 applications for temporary vending permits, 20 higher than the total for the 2018 rally.
Final numbers will be tallied, with an estimate of attendance to be released at a rally summit meeting in Sturgis in October. Last year’s estimated attendance was 495,000.
The economic impact to the state, estimated last year to be $786 million, also cannot be measured precisely, Ainslie said.
“The reality is, this is a significant economic engine, not just for the western end of the state, but all of South Dakota,” he said.