Distant rumble: How another small American town handled its motorcycle festival
by Ben Cunningham
Jul 28, 2013 | 9043 views |  0 comments | 72 72 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Motorcyclists on the street in Ellicottville, N.Y., during the New York State rally of the Harley Owners Group. Photo: Selina Guendel/Special to The Star
Motorcyclists on the street in Ellicottville, N.Y., during the New York State rally of the Harley Owners Group. Photo: Selina Guendel/Special to The Star
Green hills rolled past the windows of our rented Kia, looking uncannily like the wooded slopes of home. But Coldwater Mountain and the other peaks surrounding Anniston were 700 miles away. These were the Alleghenies of southwestern New York State. Alabama was far behind me, and ahead were a week’s vacation and a family reunion in the hills where my parents grew up. I had no reason to think of the Model City or the rough-and-tumble of its small-town politics.

Then I saw a man driving a motorcycle. Then another, the bike all chrome and glistening black paint. Then a pack of them, all rumbling in the same direction as my Kia.

Ellicottville, N.Y., a village wedged into a cool, green valley, was welcoming the 2013 New York State rally of the Harley Owners Group, with 1,200 motorcyclists roaring into town.

Back home, the Anniston City Council had just put off the approval of special-events permits for the Rumble on Noble, having received mixed views from downtown merchants about the annual festival and the thousands of bikers who crowd the city’s closed-off main drag for music, merrymaking and — of course — motorcycles. This debate was happening in a former steel and textile town with hopes of forging a new economy based on tourism.

Building on hospitality

In Ellicottville, welcoming visitors has long been big business. Cut into its tree-lined hills are slopes that shimmer with snow in winter, drawing skiers from around the region who fill up the small downtown’s restaurants, bars and shops. Many of those vacationers stay at nearby Holiday Valley, a resort that opened just south of town in 1958 and that hosted this month’s motorcycle rally.

Until about 15 years ago, tourism was something extra on top of the local economy, which was made of wood and steel, according to Brian McFadden, executive director of the Ellicottville Chamber of Commerce. The lumber industry turned the trees on the area’s hillsides into jobs, and steel fabricators made metal post office boxes and office furniture, he said. China’s economic rise helped make all that into history, though, McFadden said. Just one lumber plant remains.

Over the last 10 years, the town has aggressively marketed itself as a year-round destination. Ski towns turn out to make great mountain-biking spots in the warmer months; I saw almost as many human-powered cycles as motor-driven ones during my stay. The chamber’s summer and fall calendars are dotted with festivals and concerts. In August, Holiday Valley will host the World Bowhunting Championships, with about 3,000 visitors expected, McFadden said. It’s all worked, he said.

“Our summer traffic is equal to our winter traffic,” McFadden told me by phone last week, after I returned to Anniston. “We like all visitors as long as they kind of fit our demo,” he said, meaning demographic.

That demographic is high-income. Of the 2,489 housing units in the town, 1,620 are homes for seasonal or recreational use, according to the census. Only 755 are occupied year-round. Many of the vacation homes are large, multi-story affairs — ski chalets occupied only when the owners come into town on vacation or when they’re rented to visiting tourists. My family stayed in one of those places just outside town on our trip. The three-story lodge sleeps more than a dozen, and has a deck with a view of the farm-dotted valleys between the hills to the south.

The right demographic?

McFadden said he had some reservations at first about helping to bring the Harley Owners Group, or HOG, to town. A nearby city had hosted a motorcycle rally put on by a private promoter, an event he said soured him on the idea.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m never going to do that to Ellicottville,’” McFadden said, without elaborating much on what he didn’t like about it. I got the impression the atmosphere was a bit too wild for his taste.

The organizers of the HOG rally convinced him it would be different. HOG is operated by Milwaukee, Wisc.,-based Harley-Davidson, manufacturers of the famous motorcycle brand. The company closely monitors the activities of local chapters around the country to protect its brand, McFadden said.

The organizers convinced Holiday Valley, too. Jane Eshbaugh, the resort’s director of marketing, said it had hosted just one small motorcycle-based event before this month, back in the winter, sponsored by a nearby Harley dealer.

“We were really apprehensive thinking that skiers and Harley owners don’t mix, at least in our minds,” Eshbaugh told me by phone last week. “You think they’re all going to be like Hell’s Angels but they weren’t at all.”

The motorcycles, of course, are expensive. McFadden noted that not all the rally attendees rode their bikes into town.

“They don’t just drive Harleys,” he said. “Some pull them in a trailer with a Mercedes SUV.”

A rally good time

All of the rally’s official events were held at Holiday Valley, a 1,400-acre resort that includes ski slopes, an 18-hole golf course, a swim complex and lodge buildings to host conferences, like the HOG rally.

Attendees paid $40 each to register, according to Selina Guendel, the secretary of the small committee of HOG volunteers that planned the rally. It featured live music, as well as guided group rides, bike shows and games. Everybody got a T-shirt.

Guendel, who spoke to me by phone last week, is 56, and works as a project manager at a steel fabrication company in a town five hours’ drive east of Ellicottville. She’s a Harley owner, of course, and said she’s been riding for 27 years.

“I don’t get out as often as I want,” she said. Working with HOG gives her a chance to share her enjoyment of motorcycles with others, she said. “It’s a lot of great people and a very family-oriented organization.”

Guendel said her 22-year-old daughter was “raised going to HOG rallies,” and is now a member of the group in her own right.

The Ellicottville rally was Guendel’s fifth to help plan. The event moves to a different New York town each year, and she said in some places it takes the locals a while to warm up to the bikers. The organizing committee is used to explaining itself, she said.

“You need to work with the local government, and the police agencies to keep them in the know ... with who we are and what we do,” Guendel said. That’s so “they know what to expect of us and we know what their expectations are,” she said.

When they weren’t attending a rally event at the resort, the HOG members’ bikes lined the four square blocks of downtown Ellicottville. Visitors in leather jackets, jeans and black T-shirts thronged the dozen-or-so restaurants and bars. Every storefront in town had signs in their windows welcoming the bikers, who rumbled slowly down the busy main street, pausing often for pedestrians.

The Harley crowd seemed to get along just fine with Ellicottville’s usual summer visitors. Outside the Ellicottville Brewing Company, a row of motorcycles hulked on the curb next to a rack of mountain bikes. The thriving downtown brewpub had a special beer on tap brewed to welcome the bikers. We stopped at a downtown coffee shop one morning to use the wifi, and my wife wound up chatting with bikers from Canada surfing the Web on their iPads.

The bikers will be back. Eshbaugh, Holiday Valley’s marketing director, said the resort booked another motorcycle-related event when a group from Pennsylvania fell in love with the place at the rally.

“The ones that didn’t bring their families said, ‘Next time, we’re bringing our kids,’” Eshbaugh said. “We introduced the resort to a new market.”

Managing Editor Ben Cunningham: 256-235-3541. On Twitter @Cunningham_Star.
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