Poker run on? Depends who you ask

Custom motorcycles draw admirers to Duval Street as part of the Phil Peterson’s Poker Run to Key West. The fate of the September 2017 event that draws thousands of enthusiasts is uncertain.
Custom motorcycles draw admirers to Duval Street as part of the Phil Peterson’s Poker Run to Key West. The fate of the September 2017 event that draws thousands of enthusiasts is uncertain. Keynoter file

Thousands of motorcycles have rumbled down U.S. 1 to Key West every September for decades as part of Phil Peterson’s Poker Run, but the highway may be quieter in 2017.

The website for Peterson’s Harley Davidson in Miami-Dade County, organizer of the benefit motorcycle rally, indicates the 45th annual run is on. “September 15, 16 and 17, 2017,” says the site. “Another successful and fun-filled weekend! See you in Key West!”

But Monroe County agencies and nonprofits that have helped stage the run that draws an estimated 10,000 motorcycles say no local preparations have been launched or requested.

Staff at Peterson’s Harley-Davidson referred questions to the firm’s owners, who could not be reached by telephone or email this week.

The Sunrise Rotary of Key West served as the primary local participant for several years but withdrew following the 2016 poker run.

“We are not involved” in a 2017 Poker Run, chapter President Trice Denny said Thursday.

“After a pretty thorough examination of the whole event, the club voted to discontinue with the Poker Run,” she said. “Mostly it’s because the amount of work put in by our volunteers, and the time it took compared to the amount of money it generated, did not add up.”

Mark Moss, a Rotary member who formerly organized the Poker Run’s vendor-booth area, said any applications for Key West street closings and traffic changes should have been submitted by now. No permit requests have been submitted to Key West, city spokeswoman Alyson Crean said Wednesday. She has received other inquiries about whether the Poker Run is happening.

“If they do it, they will need to go through the process of application and approval by the City Commission, as with any major event,” Crean said. “They will also have to pay for costs incurred for closed streets, like police and Public Works.”

In 2016, the Monroe County Tourist Development Council and its local districts contributed more than $100,000 toward the Peterson’s Poker Run. No TDC money will be available for a 2017 rally, agency Executive Director Harold Wheeler said.

“It’s not that we didn’t want to sponsor it but the event coordinator did not get their application in on time” for TDC budgeting, Wheeler said. “They called a couple of months afterward and asked if we could fund it, but there won’t be a sponsorship this year.”

“They are welcome to apply for 2018,” Wheeler said. “September is a slow month so having that many people coming down is a big boost to the economy.”

The Peterson’s Harley Davidson site (www.petersonsharley.com) links to a Poker Run “Event Program” but the information posted there apparently is unchanged since 2016. It lists TDC sponsorship and a Sunrise Rotary contact. “We’ve had a couple conversations with [Peterson’s] about removing that but it’s still there,” Denny said.

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said Friday his agency has not been contacted to help plan for a 2017 rally.

“If they do have it, we do have some concerns,” Ramsay said. “We realize most of the folks coming down are just hard-working people out for a good time, but each year we’ve seen the crowd evolve into something different.”

“We’ve seen more guys flying [motorcycle jacket] colors for groups that have been associated with gang activity. That’s just asking for trouble, sparking fights with other groups they may be warring with” the sheriff said.

“We’ve had reports of big groups riding aggressively and terrorizing other motorists on the highway. Last year there was a bar fight that involved some club members,” Ramsay said. “We’re not opposed to the poker run but we do want it to be safe.”

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206