By Kayla Gahagan
STURGIS, S.D. (Reuters) - Sturgis, South Dakota, is expecting its annual motorcycle rally to draw only about half of the 1 million people who came for the 75th anniversary last year, but the tiny city is viewing this as a return to normalcy.
The 6,700 residents and hundreds of vendors expect the number of visitors and the amounts they spend at the event, which starts on Monday, to be as strong as in other years without special anniversaries.
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"People are going to come," said Betsy Ramos, who has traveled from Florida to attend the rally as an employee of bike apparel company Motorcycle Rally USA for 25 years. “Last year was crazy - a good crazy, but still crazy.”
The rally has come a long way from a simple race with nine participants and a handful of onlookers in 1938. Started by local motorcycle franchise owner Clarence "Pappy" Hoel, it has been held in the western South Dakota city every year, with some exceptions during World War Two.
Now more of a party for motorcycle enthusiasts who attend events and ride around the surrounding hills, the event has grown into an international gathering, attracting hundreds of thousands of people. Last year, it was more heavily promoted because of the special anniversary, helping to attract the larger number of attendees.
As temperatures rose on Monday afternoon, people rolled propane tanks into food tents that had been set up near Main Street, and neon banners hung from buildings advertising tattoos, concerts, t-shirts and beer.
Cris Valle, owner of Old School Tattoo Co on Main Street, decorated a customer's bicep with an anchor and cherries. After last year's big crowds, Valle said he would open only one shop this year rather than two, but he still expected business to be good.
"Even with 500,000 to 600,000 people, the rally’s still huge,” he said.
Vendor numbers are down 38 percent from a year earlier, but Sturgis officials said they were up 20 percent from 2014, a more comparable year due to the lack of a major anniversary. Officials acknowledged, however, that not all of the hotels were full and rental rates were lower.
At Wiemer's Diner and Donuts on Main Street, owner Jan Wiemer said rally week was an important part of the 67-year-old family business.
She is not sure what to expect this year, but her two daughters will take a week off from their jobs, and her sister will travel from the eastern side of the state to help.
Most people do not seem to bemoan the expected lower turnout.
In fact, Jeff Theodorow, who made the trip this year on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, was happy about it.
“I didn’t come last year," the St. Louis resident said, "because there were so many people.”
(Reporting by Kayla Gahagan; Editing by Ben Klayman and Lisa Von Ahn)