Business / Economy

City Council Wrangles Over Future of Biker Rally

Officials, public weigh in on the status of the mid-summer motorcycle rally

As the Hollister City Council meeting was inching toward midnight on Dec. 21, members of the public managed to hang tough waiting for the next-to-last agenda item, listed simply as the Rally. After slogging through end-of-the-year reports and ordinances, Mayor Ignacio Velazquez called for a five-minute break before what he termed “an emotional issue” would be taken up.

Right out of the starting gate, Velazquez laid out the ground rules, or what was up for discussion, which did not include the promoter who reneged on paying the city $90,000 it still owes for the 2015 rally.

“What we’re discussing is whether or not there will be a rally next year,” he said, then cautioned, “Everyone here has strong opinions, so I want everyone to understand that we need to respect each other.”

Velazquez admitted mistakes were made in the past and said the city council has to accept the blame. He went on to explain some of the financial realities of the previous rally. He said it was unfortunate that the promoter still has not paid half of what he owed the city and it’s the city’s fault for not having collected it. Even so, the mayor explained that with the money that was collected, along with sales taxes, the city was still in the black, to the tune of $35,000.

“We did not lose money last year, but on the flip side, had we collected the $90,000, we’d be at about $125,000 positive,” he said. “Had we collected on licensing and permits, there’d be another potential $40,000. The question becomes is the rally worth it to our community? In my opinion, yes, it is.”

Velazquez said it is estimated that $3.5 million in sales were brought into the community during the rally. He acknowledged that only a few businesses actually benefited, but said it still amounts to dollars into the community. He added there are also negatives to the rally, pointing out that the police are strained and the noise levels bother some residents.

“We have to respect that there are people who don’t want the rally,” he said. “What we have to look at as a community is what we are trying to accomplish. Are we just looking to have one big party? If we are, who’s paying for that party? If we’re going to be in the negative, my opinion is, no we shouldn’t have a party. If it’s going to be full of violence, then we shouldn’t have the party. But if we have a party like last year that was a lot of good people coming here.”

Valezquez also noted that unlike last year ,when he recused himself from involvement because he owns The Vault — which was rented out during the rally and therefore financially benefited him — it would be different in 2016, should there be a rally.

“I will be voting on it (the future of the rally), so I won’t be part of the businesses that are open and making money from the rally,” he said. “I had to choose to not be open this year because I personally believe in the rally. We need to make sacrifices together and whatever we decide tonight we need to decide it together because one of the biggest problems I’ve seen is the bickering going back and forth on how stupid can we be not doing it or how stupid can we be by doing it. That needs to stop.”

When asked for comments, Councilwoman Mickie Solorio Luna deferred to wait until others gave their opinions. Councilman Ray Friend said it was no secret that he was a supporter of the rally.

“I’m sorry that we haven’t been able to make it a going concern,” Friend said, “but when you’re dealt four aces you’ve got to play them. We were dealt 1947 (when bikers invaded Hollister). They made a movie of it. It was the beginning of the biker revolution and when I travel all over the United States people say, ‘Oh, you live in Hollister. Are you going to have a rally?’ I think we’re missing the boat, but I don’t have the business sense to make it a go. I’m just saying I support the rally.”

He said the council voted three years ago to sanction the rally for 10 years, but acknowledged the city has not been fortunate enough in working with promoters.

Councilmen Victor Gomez and Karson Klauer also passed in favor of listening to public comments before voicing their own concerns. Velazquez told the public that once the council heard their comments, direction would be given to city staff members to move forward or end the rally that night.

Mike Smith, a Hollister resident, said he supports the rally in theory, but emphasized that there is room to do better through four business principles: planning, doing, checking and improving.

“We’ve done a lot of the planning and doing, we haven't done any of the checking and improving,” he said. “That’s critical to understanding how the event can be more successful. How you can build the brand? How you can make Hollister and San Benito County more of a tourist destination?”

Smith added that he is willing to volunteer his time to help and said there needs to more understanding of how successful rallies in Sturgis and other areas are accomplished. He recommended that the event be spread out over a week with venues scattered around the county and wondered if there were some way to encourage people to build campgrounds to accommodate larger crowds.

Velazquez agreed with Smith that the city needs to have a better understanding of how other rallies are carried out and suggested that some council members need to travel to them and study their methods. He said the “hands-off approach” doesn’t work.

Christi Howe, a long-time supporter who served on a previous rally committee, questioned the entire process of bringing the rally to Hollister. She asked if there had ever been requests for RFPs (requests for proposal) when searching out promoters. She asked if there has ever been any public documentation from promoters on what they were offering and how much upfront money they would be required to pay. She wondered how many council members were involved in the decision to choose the promoters and whether there was ever any public discussion.

“All we’re asking for is clarity,” she said, while also questioning the wisdom of possibly changing the date of the rally. “They’ve been coming here for 69 years on Independence weekend and now you want to move it? There’s just so much confusion, lack of focus and information.”

Charisse Tyson, owner of Johnny’s Bar & Grill, one of the downtown flashpoints of the alleged 1947 invasion of rowdy bikers who came to Hollister, said she had hoped the night’s conversation would not be taking place for at least the next seven years after a unanimous vote in 2013 to sanction the rally for 10 years.  She indicated that even though two sitting council members (Klauer and Luna) were not present in 2013, the commitment should still stand.

“It was a safe rally; people had a great time and it was a big benefit to a lot of people,” she said. “It’s not just the bars and restaurants. It’s gas stations, grocery stores, liquor stores, and motels. If we would just learn from these experiences, I know we’re working toward the right promoter that will do the job.”

Tyson reminded the council that the next rally would be the 70th anniversary and said, “To walk away now would be absolutely insane.”

Luna said that on the 50th anniversary, the rally was run by a local committee.

“We’ve gotten away from that and then the promoters came in and they wanted a cut,” she said. “When I first heard that the promoter did not pay the $90,000 it was a complete turnoff for me. I get offended by the fact that people think they can come into this small town, have a heck of a time, and leave with bills behind.”

Luna said that after walking through her district on the west side of Hollister and talking to businesses, comprised mostly of mom-and-pop stores, that not one business supports the rally.

“If we’re going to think about something that’s good for the city it has to be the good of everybody,” she said. “I feel that the rally could work, but I think we need to stop for a year and look at everything. Let’s go back to the way it started in 1997. If we get our heads together and plan something that is good for the community.”

Klauer blamed the supporters of the rally for picking the “loser” promoter. He said one promoter was “run out of town” and another was chosen as the “savior. He said the fix would not be a simple one and that he did not feel obliged to abide by the decision of a council that he was not a member of to support the rally for 10 years.

“It’s not a binding agreement and obviously the HDA (Hollister Downtown Association) can break their contracts, the promoters can break their contracts,” he said. “We have to learn from our mistakes that the council, the promoter and HDA have made. You wouldn’t do that with a business; you wouldn’t do that with your family; and I’m not going to do it with the rally.”

He agreed that there are major merits to holding the rally, but said there were also concerns.

“Safety is a concern every year, and one of the reasons why the numbers look as good as they do is we probably didn’t have enough cops here last year,” Klauer said. “If we have one bad incident you’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

He agreed with others that there are problems with the entire process and said there needs to be an RFP as the only way to guarantee transparency. He said because of his short time on the council he feels frustrated because he doesn’t have enough information about the rally and stated that if anyone should know what’s going on it should be the council and the concerned department heads.

“When I’m getting information from sources before I get it from the people that we pay very well to do their jobs, that’s frustrating,” Klauer said. “Any direction that takes place needs to come as a consensus from the council. It shouldn’t be any different for the rally.”

All things considered, he said he was not against a 2016 rally.

“But we have to do it in a specific, sequential way,” he said. The same steps that we do with everything else. There needs to be an RFP. I’m not going to vote for any contract where we don’t get paid well in advance. Not four days or three days before the rally. We’re talking 20 or 30 days before the rally. I don’t trust any promoters. I don’t trust the vendors. It’s been proven that we can’t trust these people.”

Councilman Gomez also said there needs to be an RFP, and that the rally may be too big for local nonprofits to handle and if the rally moves forward a committee of citizens and stakeholders should be on it, along with perhaps the city manager; but he was adamant that no politicians should.

In what can only be construed as a personal condemnation, he said, “The biggest complaint I’ve had over four years has been about political involvement, specifically two names and I’m not going to name them here today,” he said. “But I hear nothing but complaints about two individuals being involved in micro-managing the rally. If there are any politicians involved, I’m not going to support it.”

Friend said if everyone insists on an RFP then he would do anything he could to support the rally, and agreed there should be payments long in advance of the rally. He warned that if there is not a rally in 2016, there won’t be one in 2017, or thereafter.

“The promoters will go on to something else,” he said. “The major sponsors are committing to something else and if we don’t get something done in the next couple of weeks there will not be any money for somebody to pay the city to do the rally. One of the complaints I heard from a major sponsor is they don’t know if we’re going to have a rally or not, so why would they commit money. And that’s probably because we have to go through this process every year and satisfy five people with different opinions.”

He took issue with Gomez’ “no politicians need apply" stance.

“If we’re going to accept the blame for the problems, I’m not going to accept the blame for a committee I have nothing to do with,” he said. “If that’s the way it’s going to go, then I’m not going to support it.”

Friend also wondered about the irony that there are issues with the rally when the city didn’t lose money, yet there doesn’t seem to be any with the airshow that consistently loses money.

“So let’s not have that either,” he quipped. “Or the car show. Or the Farmers’ Market. We don’t make any money on the Farmers’ Market, so why are we shutting downtown every Wednesday for 19 weeks?”

Friend said the council should move forward and put the request for proposals out immediately. Meanwhile, he said that during the interim there should be a meeting to decide if a committee is the way to go and if so, word should be put out to the public to recruit individuals who want to contribute or be on the committee.

“We’ve got to get the RFP out because by January the major sponsors are going to spend their money somewhere else,” he said.

Velazquez agreed, but said the timeframe for responses to the RFP should be shortened. City Manager William Avera said it was doable, but said there has to be a firm date for the rally. While there was a brief mention of moving it to the weekend following Independence Day weekend, Friend reminded everyone that the Veterans Memorial Building was the central point for the rally and it was already booked, and the only open dates were for Independence Day weekend.

“I would advise the council to have the staff put out the RFP right now,” Avera said.

The council voted 4-1 to move forward with the RFP. Luna said she stands with the taxpayers of Hollister and was not in consensus with the others.

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]