Fort Smith officials open to idea of large bike rally

story by Michael Tilley

A thousand motorcycles rumbling down Fort Smith’s Garrison Avenue and delivering millions of dollars in economic impact is not unreasonable, says one motorcycle enthusiast – and city officials say they are willing to foster such an event.

Dennis Snow has worked for several years to convince Fort Smith officials to support a large rally, and more than two years ago coordinated a meeting between officials with Bikes, Blues & BBQ (BBBQ), Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders and Claude Legris, executive director of the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Snow is the owner and producer of Thunder TV, a Sunday morning show on Fox 24 about riding motorcycles in the region. Thunder TV also is the official TV show of Bikes, Blues & BBQ.

BBBQ is a motorcycle rally based in Fayetteville that just completed – held Sept. 18-21 – its 14th annual event. The event is nationally known, and draws more than 400,000 visitors to various cities in Benton, Washington and Carroll counties in Northwest Arkansas. Some of the visitors also stay at hotels in Van Buren, Fort Smith and other counties adjacent to Northwest Arkansas.

A 2005 study by the University of Arkansas’ Center for Business and Economic Research indicated that the 2004 event had an economic impact of between $34.725 million and $52.088 million.

“There is an obvious evidence of increases in taxes received by the city from hotels, motels, and restaurants during the period of the festival,” noted the study.

Snow has support from Northwest Arkansas in his effort to piggyback off the BBBQ and develop a rally in Fort Smith.

Coleson Burns, assistant event director with BBBQ, was one of the event officials to visit with Mayor Sanders and Legris. A leadership change at BBBQ interrupted the process, but Burns said BBBQ officials “would be happy to talk about 2014” as soon as they get the 2013 event behind them.

“We looked at the (downtown Fort Smith) area. .. Everything is very nice. The facilities there are great. It’s just a matter of growth and marketing it the right way,” Burns told The City Wire.

Continuing, Burns said the expected growth of BBBQ will need to involve new partners.

“As it grows, as this event grows, we feel that it will have to expand, you know, geographically. I mean, we want to spread the wealth as much as we can within our capabilities,” Burns explained. “So, yes, should an opportunity arise, we are interested in expanding, both North and South.”

Burns said Fort Smith being 45 minutes away from Fayetteville is not a problem. The issue will be in organizing and managing an event.

“It’s not like I can just hire someone for a Fort Smith venue. There would an immense amount of coordination that would have to happen to make it the right fit for the right time,” Burns explained.

It’s the manpower support that Snow says he and others in Fort Smith can make happen. But Snow, who has been involved in various aspects of motorcycle rallies and events since 1977,  said city officials have to work close with he and others who know who to create a successful and “sustainable” event.

“We’re losing millions of dollars because we have the venues and the avenue and it’s just a great geographic location for an event like this. We can make this work here. … We should have made it work here a long time ago,” Snow said.

When could the first event happen?

“We can do it next year, but we have to start now,” he said without hesitation.

Snow also said a rally coordinated with BBBQ could result in a standalone event unique to Fort Smith.

“That street (Garrison Avenue) is so perfect for a motorcycle rally. … We hold something with that (Bikes, Blues & BBQ), and then it will springboard into a rally of our own in the Spring. I’m telling you man, we can do this. We can start our own rally here in downtown Fort Smith,” Snow said.

Legris said he has been in contact with BBBQ officials and hopes to meet with them “in the next couple of weeks.” Legris also said working with BBBQ could result in an event that is not just an extension of what happens in Fayetteville.

“Of course I would support this. … Of course I would talk the thing up, because it can mean nothing but dollar signs for Fort Smith,” Legris said.

Mayor Sanders said Thursday that he might be willing to provide some money from his discretionary budget to get an event started.

“Absolutely. If it’s something of a significant size that would benefit the economy … I would certainly consider it,” Sanders said.

Legris also has another reason to be supportive of a motorcycle rally. The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism is working to promote motorcycle tourism in Arkansas. Parks and Tourism employee Grady Spann toured Arkansas by motorcycle in the fall of 2012 to promote the “Let’s Ride” campaign.

In an Oct. 5 address to members of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, Spann said the impact of motorcycle tourism is positive for events large and small. While everyone is aware of BBBQ, Spann said an August 2012 event – Mountains, Music and Motorcycles – in Mountain View, Ark., brought in an economic impact of $1.3 million in spite of its small-town venue.

Part of what makes motorcycle tourism such a lucrative field for business owners is that the biker demographic has changed.

"The clientele we see today is different. From 1985 to 2003, the median age for bikers increased from 27 to 41. Bikers from ages 40 to 49 increased from 13% to 27%. Fifty-plus-year-olds, and I'm in that age group now, went from 8% to 25%. That's because bikers are getting older, I guess," Spann said.

As if on cue, more than 250 motorcyclists rumbled through Fort Smith on Wednesday (Sept. 25) and stayed overnight before traveling up to Eureka Springs. The group was part of an “Ozark Hellbender” tour on a a 1,340-mile loop on mostly two-lane roads through Arkansas and Missouri and other mid-American states. Fort Smith was the fifth of seven stops during the Sept. 22-27 trip for the Harley Owners Group. Other stops included Hot Springs and the tour ends in Cuba, Mo.

“We had 250+ riders through today from all over the country, France and England,” noted a statement sent Thursday from the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Most planned to spend the day today and they had to come by Miss Laura’s Visitors Center to get their travel books stamped this morning by ‘Miss Laura’ herself. We staffed up with 7 volunteers and opened the doors at 8:30. We had bikers waiting at 7:15 this morning. Not sure exactly how many stayed the night but I know the Marriott Courtyard was sold out last night. Today was a perfect example of how our River Valley area can play a major role in this type of tourism.”