Roaring engines thunder down normally quiet streets. Leather vests and bandanas become the hottest fashion. Signs hang outside restaurants and shops with a greeting that sums up the sentiment of a city:
“Welcome home, Harley riders.”
Such was the sight in Milwaukee last weekend as thousands of bikers from around the world came to take part in the Harley-Davidson 110th Anniversary Celebration. The event was one of many international anniversary celebratiohns including festivities in Italy, China and India, among others.
“There’s no other motorcycle quite like it,” Yan Enery of Lausanne, Switzerland said. Enery came to the celebration to promote a line of Steelcraft watches, but found something more than just potential customers.
“(There’s) this entire pride feeling that you get when you get a Harley,” he said. “You’re part of the team, part of the family. It feels like something very special.”
Starting with the official anniversary kick-off party Thursday night, the festivities gave motorists more than one way to celebrate. More than 60 bands performed at the Summerfest grounds, with Toby Keith, Aerosmith and Kid Rock as headliners and musicians like ZZ Top and Dropkick Murphys performing at side stages. The Harley-Davidson Museum hosted two custom bike shows, and local Harley dealerships offered celebrations with vendors and live music.
More than 6,000 Harley riders joined the official 110th Anniversary Parade Saturday morning, which started at Miller Park and ended at the Summerfest grounds. The colorful parade route ran through the middle of Marquette’s campus, where the commotion took some students by surprise. The noise managed to wake Catherine Solmos and her roommate Corinne Cescolini, both sophomores in the College of Nursing, as motorcycles passed their residence hall, Straz Tower
Pokrywczynski said he believes this connection comes from the community of Harley riders and employees.
“They build a relationship with the customer,” he said. “They treat (their customers) right to begin with when they buy the product. They stay connected with them. They appeal to the customers’ interests, especially in the way they hold these events.”
A Milwaukee resident for 28 years, Pokrywczynski is no stranger to the company’s reputation for throwing a good party and knew the 110th anniversary wouldn’t disappoint.
“I went to the first big one, the 95th anniversary,” he said, “and was just overwhelmed with how they were able to convince the city to turn over their streets (for the event). Ever since then, I’ve tried to attend to see what else Harley is going to be doing every five years to out-do themselves from the year before, and they always manage to do.”
Milwaukee officials were all too happy to once again turn over the city’s streets, knowing the crowds – and their wallets – would bring economic benefits for local businesses. Bryan Babler, bar manager at Mo’s Irish Pub, said that business at his restaurant “at least doubled, maybe tripled” while the bikers were in town.“We had people from Edinburgh, Scotland,” Babler said. “We had people from San Paolo, Brazil; a giant table from China was here; another table from Japan. It’s been just completely global. The funny thing is, I don’t think I had anyone this entire weekend from Wisconsin, at least not from the Milwaukee area.”While the official numbers have not been released, these visitors were expected to bring in more than $20 million in revenue, according to VISIT Milwaukee, a convention and visitors bureau.
“It’s completely boosted the economy,” Babler said. “You know, we have a couple of hotels that sit pretty low in capacity for the year. I think every hotel in the city was at 100 percent (capacity). I know just the surrounding businesses have really flourished (on account of) the amount of people that have come to the city.”
The high demand for lodging kept hotels busy during a historically slow weekend. Cassy Scrima, area director of marketing for Marcus Hotels & Resorts, said in an email that riders began booking rooms as soon as the anniversary dates were announced in February 2012. The hotels she represents, Hilton Milwaukee City Center, The Pfister Hotel and InterContinental Milwaukee, were all “fully committed” for the weekend, with well over 2,000 bikers staying at the three properties combined.
Riders who couldn’t get a room in Milwaukee had to stay in outlying cities nearby like Racine and as far south as Lake Geneva. Others camped out at the Wisconsin State Fair grounds or rented houses from locals on Craigslist, some spending thousands of dollars for just a few nights.
Fortunately, even this minor drawback couldn’t dampen the energy and excitement for the motorcyclists.
“The sound of thunder, you can’t beat it,” Jim Junion of New Franken, Wis. said. “You don’t even want to put a radio on. You want to listen to the music that’s around you.”
The thunder of Harley motorcycles may have left Milwaukee, but the spirit of community and freedom that brought them here lives on at the Harley-Davidson factory, the company’s nearby museum and the city that started it all 110 years ago.
Video by Dan Schergen, MUTV