The prospects of making money have a habit of making cities seem in a perpetual state of identity crisis. Cities often build their identities around numerous policies, projects, and events that create a narrative of commitment to a particular set of values and ideas. However, when someone proposes some event or project that goes against that idea, those values and ideas vanish the moment that the specter of money materializes. The town with a socially conservative identity might host a heavy metal festival while the town of agricultural workers might become the site of a film festival. There’s nothing wrong with such things happening in these communities, of course, especially if the community welcomes them, but often they happen not at the behest of their residents but under the influence of some powerful person in the community who promises the city the prospect of money.
Fayetteville, Arkansas is no different. At its core, it’s a city that pursues progressive policies and is trying to build itself as a destination for arts and culture. In its propaganda, the city touts the fact that it’s among the top five cities in U.S. News and World Report’s Best Places to Live list. The city continues to invest in infrastructure projects like bike trails and sidewalks and promotes development codes that encourage urban infill. The city has been active in adding green spaces and reducing the city’s carbon footprint. It hosts a folk music festival every August and a block party in the spring that promotes local businesses (though the future of the event is cloudy following a 2018 cancellation).
However, like many cities, Fayetteville is willing to put its identity to the side for an event that promises to make money, which it does annually with the Bikes, Blues and BBQ motorcycle rally. Ostensibly the nation’s largest for-charity biker rally, the event rolls into Fayetteville every September when the Arkansas Razorbacks head to Dallas to play the Texas A&M Aggies. Inevitably, it ruins what is often the first nice autumn weekend in Fayetteville for anyone who isn’t a fan of engine revving or handlebar mustaches.
The event itself casts many of Fayetteville’s identities aside. Most attendees prefer large motorcycles that fill the air with exhaust. Sidewalks quickly become receptacles for litter. Bikers rarely buy from the local shops – many have learned to simply close up for the weekend – and spend their money at the shops and stalls owned primarily by out-of-state vendors. The merchandise itself can be an affront to the city’s values, sometimes mixing the city’s name with alt-right slogans.
And the events? They vary from year to year, but past festivals have included live music (generally of the hard rock variety), stunt shows, bull riding, demolition derbies, the Miss Bikes, Blues and BBQ pageant, helicopter rides, and – because of course the festival included it in 2013 – the Midget Wrestling Federation. The festival is a Brian Posehn-fronted comedy tent away from offering nearly the same attractions as the Gathering of the Juggalos.
Culturally, the event is an odd fit. More alarming is how the male-centric event can create a hostile environment for women. While the event bills itself as family-friendly, I’ve known countless people who have relayed their personal stories of cat calls and harassment from the bikers, and a number of people I know refuse to go anywhere near the bikers – or to work, for that matter – because they feel threatened by them. The infrastructure of the rally itself reinforces this masculine culture, with events and merchandise that empower men and objectify women.
Such views are hardly unique to the festival attendees, though – in 2010, planners behind the rally surprised Fayetteville with a rally for the ladies called Bikes, Babes and Bling. (leave it to the rally organizers to finish the name with a word that simultaneously found them objectifying women and using hopelessly dated diction). With the benefit of $20,000 from the city’s advertising and promotions commission, the organizers put together a schedule of events that they thought would appeal to female bikers, which apparently consisted mainly of safety seminars and a “bubba” contest that proposed to subject men to the same treatment as the women in the main rally’s annual bikini contest. After two festivals ended with a whimper, organizers announced that Bikes, Babes and Bling would be consolidated with the main rally. Subsequent rallies have since shown no effort to appeal to female bikers, which, given the organizers’ haphazard efforts, is probably for the best.
Some supporters of the rally admit that the rally isn’t the best cultural fit for Fayetteville but explain that the rally is still a boon for the region due to the event’s economic impact. A 2014 report based on the 2013 festival commissioned by the festival’s organizers from the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas found that the festival generates a little more than $2 million (!!) in local sales tax and a total economic impact of – and I’m finding the ridiculousness of this number difficult to type – $69.4 million (!!!). The festival estimates this based on a conservative estimate of 300,000 attendees. Supporters also point out that the rally raises a significant amount of money for charity, though based on the most recent, ahem, conservative attendance estimate of 300,000, the $270,000 raised in 2017 amounted to less than a dollar per attendee, and the festival’s detractors claim that the math has added up to less than 40 cents per attendee in some years.
Apologies – I need to break with a very brief paragraph just to take all that in.
Considering the total sales tax raised on a monthly basis for the month of September, even the most dubious of methods can’t realistically suggest that the rally generates much more than $150,000 in city and county sales tax – a far cry from the $2 million suggested in the report. Such an estimate ignores the fact that sales tax receipts in September are usually boosted by the return of college football and a retail calendar that typically makes a big Labor Day push. A more realistic (though I suspect still somewhat inflated) estimate put out by employees of the city of Fayetteville suggests that the impact on sales tax could be around $80,000. Using the flawed calculations of the above flawed report, this suggests an economic impact of $2.7 million from just shy of 50,000 attendees (though I doubt the organizers would approve of that attendance number, it does make a significant improvement to the per capita money raised for charity, making that 2017 figure $5.40 per person).
Let’s be pessimistic and say that we should cut the economic impact number in half and call it $1.35 million. All things being equal, $1.35 million isn’t an amount of money to be completely ignored. However, as the festival’s detractors point out, this money doesn’t affect all workers equally. Many businesses close during the festival, and I have first-hand experience in knowing that those businesses’ employees don’t get paid. Many other businesses make little money despite remaining open.
The businesses that make money are largely hotels in the region and bars in Fayetteville’s entertainment district. That money, though, generally only finds its way into the hands of the proprietors of the establishment – employees rarely receive extra pay despite working difficult shifts, some marked by the aforementioned harassment. Stories I’ve heard suggest taking the week of the rally off isn’t an option. Owners of bars and hotels may well prosper during the event, but their employees often feel the burden of working difficult shifts for no reward.
The festival’s detractors are quick to mention the ways in which the festival doesn’t fit the culture of the community and how its economic impact is overstated, both points I can agree with. They also like to portray the event as a bastion of criminality, and, in this respect, the actual numbers let the detractors down. True, the festival sees an uptick in arrests and citations. Interestingly enough, the numbers themselves aren’t that high given the large volume of people who attend. Moreover, most of the people arrested are from Fayetteville and the surrounding cities.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about the event, some of which were exacerbated by my time taking photos for this post. Walking through the groups of attendees, I certainly felt out of place – my knit sweater, unlike a number of other garments I saw people wearing, didn’t have any patches identifying me as a supporter of the Second Amendment, deplorables, or the Confederate States of America. In fact, there weren’t any other people wearing knits.
I’m being a little unfair in that last paragraph, as there were plenty of attendees who weren’t representing far-right political views. I saw numerous riders with patches identifying themselves as veterans. I saw at least one rider with a prosthesis. I saw a few families riding together.
And yes, I did see lots of attendees wearing t-shirts adorned with tacky phrases, some of which were indeed about their, um, endowments. And let’s just draw the curtain of charity over the typography choices involved in everything I observed.
I bring all this up because my walk made me feel so many mixed emotions. Most of the attendees are the kinds of people I rarely encounter. Some – like the self-identified deplorables – are the ones I do my best to not encounter. Others – like the veterans – are often invisible in society. And still others are the kinds of people who don’t typically show up at the places I spend my time.
My concern is that, as I looked through the viewfinder of my camera, I recognize in the people I saw some of the people I used to know down South. I saw people enjoying the moment, having fun on their bikes. I saw people taking selfies and videos, capturing memories of the sites and rides. I saw men posing for the gaggle of onlookers, showing off their tattoos to kids that seemed genuinely interested. I saw couples enjoying themselves. I saw people who seemed bored and ready to go home.
In short, I saw lots of human moments. Neither detractors nor supporters ever seem to bring this up in the debates about the event.
As I returned home, I walked by a vacant lot. Until recently, an old house stood on the lot, but the house was recently demolished. It was in sad shape, but it was allowed to deteriorate, slowly, until it was finally made unlivable and was torn down. At one time, it likely could have been fixed up for a single family. However, the land was undoubtedly more valuable than the house would have been, and I expect a shoddy duplex to go up sometime soon.
One of the issues with city identities is that their narratives collapse quickly. For all its progressive policies, Fayetteville is never a leader, and the architects of its vision often fall back on comparisons, claiming that they’re working toward making Fayetteville “the next (insert hip city of your choice here).” Residents have said they like the amenities the city offers, but many residents have raised concerns that those amenities are pricing them out of the city. While the city’s mayor says he hears these concerns, there are no movements to change zoning laws in ways that might create more affordable housing; instead, the city is moving ahead on beautifying the city’s entertainment district. The project will likely displace more residents – and will likely make money for friends of the city’s aldermen.
Cities tell stories about their identities, but those stories often rely on ersatz narratives. Fayetteville presents itself as a progressive beacon, but much of its work behind the scenes reveals that its decisions have more to do with making money for people with connections than they do with actually implementing progressive policies. When it’s all said and done, Bikes, Blues, and BBQ is an event that signals to the local population that their interests and concerns don’t matter so long as money finds its way to a small few. Seen this way, it’s as Fayetteville as anything else the city does.