*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
August 21, 2010
as "A Tale of Two Cities' Biker Rallies"
as "A Tale of Two Cities' Biker Rallies"
Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
From August 3-8, the city of Columbia, Missouri, home to the University of Missouri, hosted the National Bikers Roundup. This is a traveling rally that annually attracts thousands of bikers. Last year’s rally, held in Atlanta, attracted around 85,000. The expected attendance at this Mid-Missouri metropolis was expected to be 35,000.
The Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau’s executive director, Lorah Steiner, termed it “…one of the single largest events we have ever brought to the city in a concentrated period of time.” The reaction to the rally locally was apocalyptic. Even the publisher of the local paper admitted to “…a certain amount of community angst.”
We lived in Columbia for 14 years, so it was with interest that I followed the reportage via the Internet. Reader comments complained in advance about the traffic, the possible damage to the fairgrounds, the noise, an influx of drugs, guns, and other crime. When rally organizers contracted a private firm to provide security, the County Sheriff demanded that they be trained and certified. He said, “I’m not going to put two to four deputies inside an area where there’s 30,000 people unless there are additional security, medical and emergency service personnel available. This is a huge event. I don’t think people understand how big it is.”
The impending guests were called hoodlums, and compared to Marlon Brando’s “The Wild Ones.” One reader commented, “No good will come of this.”
To be fair, there was support for the rally amongst those same comments, but the general mood seemed like the city was hunkering down for an armed invasion.
In contrast, every year, Johnstown also hosts a rally, Thunder in the Valley, attracting upwards of 200,000 annually, and while there are some citizens who do plan their vacations for that week, most people here embrace the annual event, and warmly welcome the folks who attend it.
Columbia is a city of almost 90,000 with a substantial law enforcement presence shared by Columbia Police Department, Boone County Sheriff’s, and the Missouri Highway Patrol, who were all hands on deck for the rally. In contrast, Johnstown, a city of roughly 25,000, utilizes its own small police force, with the addition of perhaps a half-dozen mounted troopers from the Pennsylvania State Police for traffic control.
There are other differences as well. The site of the Roundup, the Boone County Fairgrounds, is actually several miles north of the city. Thunder, as we all know, takes place mostly in the heart of downtown. Officials in Columbia predicted 7-mile-long traffic jams. Around here, while things are slow going at times, it’s certainly never that bad.
Watching the hooha from a distance, I was a little surprised. Columbia is a progressive community, its economy dominated by white collar jobs with the University, two colleges, four hospitals, as well as the national and regional headquarters of two large insurance companies. It is a community committed to environmental issues, yet fully aware of the need of a healthy business community. Unemployment is around 6 percent, which while historically high, is still significantly below the national average. Even in these difficult times, homes are being built, and sold there. The people pride themselves on being sophisticated and educated.
Also, they also have three, count ‘em, three Wal-Mart Supercenters, and three others within 30 miles.
And yet, the specter of 35,000 motorcyclists sends many of them running for shelter.
Having a foot in both communities, I couldn’t help but chuckle. Johnstown, a fraction of Columbia’s size and possessing a small percentage of the resources, hosted a rally (in the center of town, mind you) at least 6 times larger than the National Bikers Roundup, and did so peacefully; with grace and aplomb.
Johnstowners should be proud of their hospitality and capability. I have said before that Thunder should be the template for any community contemplating a gathering of large groups of people. Certainly Mid-Missourians could have learned volumes.
Perhaps the difference between the two communities is Johnstown’s history of three devastating floods, and the willingness of the people here to stand tough, stand together, and stand proud. And despite tragedies, natural and economic, the people here will never hesitate to throw a party. There is an iron bond of community and a sheer joie de vivre, the joy of living, which runs through the people of this region. You just don’t find that in very many places these days.
Even in the face of daunting economic challenges, Johnstown repeatedly proves that it is “The Little City that Could.” And does.