ROSALIA, Wash. – John Millspaugh has coined a new motto for his wheat and barley farming town of Rosalia. “Welcome to Sinsalia,” he said, glancing up at the shiny black billboard advertising the town’s third annual 100 Years of Motorcycles Rally.
Two years after the rally made the city famous, Rosalia’s 650 inhabitants are caught in a controversy that has turned this mellow town on the Palouse into a cantankerous community.
The local Chamber of Commerce says Rosalia’s population inflated to 22,000 last year for three days of flashing chrome, beer guzzling, rock concerts and even speedy marriages. It will host the event again for two days in August, and residents argue whether the moral cost is worth the financial gain.
“There is a moral majority that doesn’t want this in our town,” said Millspaugh, 70, pointing to his white T-shirt that reads, “Keep Rosalia a Great Place to Live.” Above this line, a red circle contains a slash through the words, “Current Motorcycle Rally.”
Millspaugh wore his shirt, as did about 20 other residents, at the town council meeting Tuesday night, which drew about 60 people. Amid the cheers of fellow T-shirt wearers, Lisa Adams, 45, released the results of a survey she conducted. More than half of the 130 residents who responded voted against the event.
Neither the mayor nor the Chamber of Commerce accepted the survey because they say it came from someone biased toward ending the event.
“It’s just not a fair assessment,” said Bonnie Stites, the Chamber president and owner of the Longhorn Café and Lounge, which burned in April but is expected to reopen two weeks before the rally.
Stites and Mayor Ken Jacobs said they would stop the rally if the majority of the town were against it, but they haven’t found that to be the case.
The city signed a five-year contract with Rosalia resident and rally promoter Josh Bryan.
Adams said residents are outraged at the renewal and requested that the mayor conduct his own survey.
Stites believes most residents appreciate the revenue and publicity the rally brings, even if it means the inconvenience of closed roads for a few days.
“This is a great way to get people down in our area,” she said. Rally opponents “haven’t seen what it has done. If the citizens don’t do something to help this town thrive, it’s going to be a ghost town.”
The city has made $6,000 from the event in the past two years with an additional $2,000 in sales tax revenue. Money has helped improve the medical clinic, complete the library, boost city park funds and form a youth football club.
But it’s the businesses that stand to benefit most, Jacobs said. “These small towns are trying to find some kind of niche to revitalize our communities and keep what few businesses we have growing,” he said.
For Rosalia, it’s a motorcycle party.
Dave Wilson, 64, said he owes his impending retirement to the rally. He owns the Brass Rail, the town’s only bar since the Longhorn burned.
Lines snaked from Wilson’s bar during last year’s rally, reaching far down the street. He says they were “the nicest people I’ve ever served.”
“It takes me three months of working to do what I did in one weekend,” he said. “Without it, I don’t know if any of the businesses could survive.”
Not all businesses look forward to the event.
A month ago, Linda Pritchett opened her shop, Rosalia Coffee & More, after more than a year’s absence from the town. She’s not sure she’ll extend her hours to accommodate this year’s event.
“I moved here because I can let my kids ride their bikes,” she said. “There are better ways to promote our community than biker babes and beer.”
Bryan said the rally has a Disneyland feel. But his Web site, www.100yearsofmotor cycles.com, boasts appearances by a “selection of the finest girls from Hooters” as well as the Iron Angels, billed as “America’s #1 motorcycle calendar models.” It also introduces the rally’s own calendar girl.
Jacobs said he’s not sacrificing the town’s values for increased income from breast-brandishers and drunken biker dudes.
“There are a lot of different facets of society that have bikes. It’s doctors and lawyers who come and then return all times of the year.”
He said he hopes to replicate the atmosphere of the first year, which had fewer complaints about loud music and public disturbances. It also cost state taxpayers nearly a quarter of a million dollars in unnecessary emergency workers, according to state records previously reported by The Spokesman-Review.
This year, Jacobs said, the town expects Bryan to cover the extra costs. Rosalia will pay overtime for the marshal, and Bryan will cover the cost of garbage and security.
Bryan, 33, who owns Spokane’s National Custom Motor Works, pays the city $7,500 for the event and said he has yet to break even. He will spend about $10,000 just on portable toilets this year.
He said he covers the costs because he thinks the event will benefit the community. “We’re not Sturgis. We are striving not to have a G, not an R, but a PG event that you can bring your kids to,” he said.
The event was shortened by a day this year to allow residents to recuperate on Sunday, he added.
But Jim Nebel, 65, who remembers watching a drunken man urinate in his flower bed, is not so sure things will change.
“We are going to go ahead with it because people feel a bit obligated,” said Nebel, who owns Rosalia’s Budding Rose Art Gallery and Clay Works.
“But if it’s as rough as last year, we will clamor to shut it down.”
He peered down Whitman Street, quiet except for the occasional din of power tools next door at the Longhorn. “This is just a small-town controversy,” he said.