Jim Holland Journal correspondent
STURGIS — Looking back on the just-finished Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, Meade County Sheriff Ron Merwin can claim a remarkable statistic.
“You know, it’s the 82nd (rally), and I’ve worked 40 of the 82,” he said.
But, that long run is coming to an end as Merwin, 63, prepares to hang up his badge after 32 years as sheriff.
He lost his bid for re-election in the June primary to current state Department of Criminal Investigation officer Pat West, who will take over in January.
In a pensive recollection during the final news briefing of rally week last Friday, Merwin told reporters of his first rally, in 1982 as a part-time officer with the Sturgis Police Dept.
In those days, the city sold camping spots to rally-goers in the city park, now the city soccer fields along Highway 34 on the northeast edge of town.
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During rally week, the city park campground became notorious for a raucous atmosphere, putting it lightly.
By the late 1980s, wild parties, fights and debauchery were the norm, making the park a nightmare for police and other city employees.
“Back in the 80’s you didn’t go into campgrounds. You just didn’t,” Merwin said. “You’d get rocked and your cars would come out with broken windows.”
In 1989, the city held a special election, which essentially became a referendum on the future of the rally. Voters chose to close the city park and allow private landowners to develop campgrounds for rally visitors.
Private campgrounds on the outskirts or a few miles out of town, including the Buffalo Chip, Glencoe, and Hog Heaven to name a few, sprang up to host bikers.
Merwin hired on full-time with Sturgis Police in 1984 and served until 1990 when he ran for sheriff, defeating incumbent Floyd Cleland.
“I’ve been here as long as the Buffalo Chip,” he said.
Even today Merwin still admits to getting nervous when he or his deputies are dispatched to outlying campgrounds, “because of that what-if,” he said
“Those times have changed,” he said. “You go into a campground now, it’s like a city. Everybody helps out. Their security leads us in. It’s just evolved and become a nice event.”
Another highlight, Merwin said, is the good relations the sheriff’s office maintains with other law enforcement agencies, as well as with deputies and staff which have come from far and wide to help out during the rally.
“I got along good with (retired Sturgis Police Chief) Jim Bush and I’ve gotten along with (current chief) Geody (VanDewater),” he said.
“People come together from all over the United States throughout the years to work here and they’ve always gotten along. We’ve had a bump here and there and even the bumps we got through. Life goes on,” he said.
But even with the rally generally running smoothly, there is always the potential of not just a possible, but a likely incident.
“It’s not ‘if’ but ‘when,’ usually,” he said. “Every day you come to work and the pressure for us is to anticipate what could happen. And every day when it doesn’t happen, it’s kind of a ‘whew.'”
Merwin said in his early days, the rally drew about 30,000 visitors, with 35,000 considered a large event. Now the norm is 300- to 400-thousand visitors.
“It’s probably the only rally in the country that pulls the crowd from all over the world. Every other rally will pull crowds from areas, but Sturgis pulls from all around the world and they do a great job of it,” he said.
Merwin said few cities the size of Sturgis, population 7,000, can pull off an event the magnitude of the rally.
“We don’t have meetings every month year-round to decide about the rally. The last couple months we have meetings. That’s good. I think we’ve got it down,” he said.
The city has even turned the rally into a profit-generator, Merwin notes.
Last year, City Manager Daniel Ainslie reported a net profit of $1.1 million, with the state Department of Revenue reporting $1.75 million in tax revenue. Nearly $100,000 in proceeds from scheduled events, matched by other donations, went to local charities.
This year’s final revenue and attendance, expected to be lower than last year, will be tabulated and announced at a rally summit set for early October.
“In ’82, I remember how much it cost the city,” Merwin said.
“The county wasn’t that much of a player in it. We ran the jail. The county didn’t do a lot. We didn’t have big campgrounds and concerts like we got today,” he said.
Merwin described working his final rally as “bittersweet.”
He’s sorry it’s over, but he is ready to move on. He made no mention of his plans once he leaves office in January.
“Yeah, I’m kind of looking forward to not doing it anymore,” he said. “I’ve had enough.”