Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | July 11, 2006

Well, duh: Host and profit from the biker rally

Well, duh.

Hollister officials have decided that maybe the city should host the annual Independence Rally after all.

“Next year, we need to have a plan in place,” Hollister Mayor Robert Scattini told reporter Brett Rowland after this year’s canceled (but sort of happened anyway) rally. “It needs to be planned out so we can avoid what happened this year. I’m embarrassed, as the mayor, to have had this happen.”

Scattini is forming a committee to develop that plan.

Hollister City Council, on a close 3-2 vote (Scattini voted with the minority to host this year’s rally), canceled this year’s rally that brings fame, bikers and cash to the sleepy San Benito County city that Marlon Brando made famous in his 1953 biker movie “The Wild One.” That movie was inspired by the 1947 “Battle of Hollister” in which 50 people were arrested.

Cancel the rally? I suspect that the city’s decision to yank the welcome mat made the annual July 4 weekend event, er, non-event, seem even more inviting to folks of the biker ilk.

“When you say it’s not happening, that means it’s happening,” a biker named Carl Spotts from Grass Valley told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Thousands – 5,000, according to estimates I’ve read – of bikers came to the county seat, welcome or not, for the annual celebration of Brando’s movie and Hollister’s biker heritage.

“They’ll never stop it. It’s been going since the ‘40s,” Bay Area Harley owner Tony Morris told the Associated Press.

Bikers might have been coming to Hollister for the Fourth of July holiday since the 1940s, but the city has been sanctioning the rally only since 1997. But high security bills and complaints from residents led to the attempted cancellation this year.

Despite the cancellation, this year thousands of bikers came to the town of 35,000 residents. The city spent an estimated $150,000 on extra police patrols, City Council member Monica Johnson told to the AP. She also estimated that the city would have spent $700,000 on security if it had sponsored this year’s event.

I wonder how accurate those estimates are, given that the city had 84 officers on patrol during this year’s rally, down just 20 officers from 104 officers on patrol during last year’s rally that drew 120,000 visitors.

Certainly the police-to-visitor ratio – 84 officers for 5,000 visitors this year versus 104 officers for 120,000 visitors last year – casts doubt on the wisdom of canceling the event.

How much did the city earn in rally-related permit fees? Nothing. Vendors were not able to set up shop on city streets, something for which the city used to issue permits (and collect fees) during city-sanctioned rallies of years past.

How much did it earn in rally-related sales tax revenue? A lot less than in previous years, because attendance was down dramatically.

“This is not at all like business has been in the past,” Kwan Cho, owner of Brother’s Market, told reporter Danielle Smith. “It’s a little better than a regular Saturday, but not much.”

I hope that the committee that Scattini is forming can find a way to leverage the Independence Rally that the mayor himself admits puts Hollister “on the map.”

I don’t even think the Independence Rally needs to be a profitable or break-even proposition for the City of Hollister for it to be a worthwhile undertaking. It takes time to build a profitable business, and Hollister officials ought to expect that it will take time to build a profitable rally. In addition, it’s difficult to put an accurate price tag on the value of the reputation as a cool biker town that Hollister earns from the annual rally.

Hollister has the advantage of proximity to a three-day, world-class festival that’s profitable and benefits the community: the Gilroy Garlic Festival. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Hollister’s leaders ought to study the wildly successful stinking rose festival, seek guidance from the folks across the county line who’ve figured out a winning formula, and shamelessly copy every idea they can.

But that’s not all. They also need to listen to Hollister business owner Megan Ward.

“We’re not the first place in the world to hold a biker rally,” the proprietor of Main Street Bistro told reporter Danielle Smith. “We should learn from those other cities and see what they’re doing, because this is really a great opportunity for everyone.”

Well said, and, well, duh.

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