BELFAST, Maine — Next week, the owner of Rollie’s Bar & Grill on Main Street hopes he can install the new sign he just ordered that says: “Two wheels, four wheels or no wheels, welcome to Belfast.”
Ryan Otis believes the sentiment will help quell the anger of motorcycle riders who feel the city has snubbed them and their bikes. Some of those riders have proposed a boycott of downtown businesses, which has attracted more than 200 supporters so far on a Facebook page about the issue. The page also has generated a lot of comments about the city, most of which are negative.
“We want everybody,” Otis said Wednesday afternoon. “There is no witch hunt for motorcycles. It’s business as usual in Belfast — aside from one boneheaded comment.”
The comment that sparked the fervor was made on June 19 by Councilor Roger Lee during a City Council meeting. After listening to several residents pleading for city officials to do something about what they considered to be distressingly loud motorcycle noise downtown, Lee briefly asked if it might be possible to keep the bikes off some city streets. None of the other councilors took up the issue and the comment did not lead to any direct action, ordinances or even a few minutes’ worth of discussion.
Councilors did decide to purchase about a half-dozen signs that exhort motorcyclists to “Please drive quietly” and have them placed around town.
But Lee’s words have spurred a large amount of pushback and indignation from motorcyclists, some of whom have said that the comment tapped into a sense that motorcyclists and even blue-collar Belfast natives are becoming second-class citizens in their own hometown.
“[Lee] made a comment, not knowing that a lot of people in Belfast grew up hearing bikes rumbling through this town,” Tony Runci of Belfast said Wednesday while waiting for a sandwich at Bowen’s Tavern on Route 137. “The poultry plants closed down, and this town was pretty much crushed.”
The visiting motorcyclists who came to town in the 1980s helped to ease some of the economic pain by spending money in the restaurants and other businesses in town, he said.
Bowen’s is proudly known as the local biker bar, and Runci, who is in his 40s, said he is a proud biker.
“I have a custom Harley. I try to ride respectfully. I try to be considerate,” he said. “In town, I do understand that it can scare kids and old people.”
He thinks the Belfast City Council should not single out motorcycles for noisiness — but one positive result of the conflict is that the issue is provoking a lot of discussion among his motorcycle-riding peers.
“People my age are deciding to get involved in politics. It’s helped wake some people up,” he said.
Efforts to reach Lee on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Many downtown merchants worked this week to calm the troubled waters, speaking to city councilors and to City Manager Joe Slocum to let them know they were not in support of any anti-motorcycle ordinances.
“The city of Belfast is concerned about loud noise emanating from illegally modified motorcycle exhaust pipes that occasionally operate inside the city,” Slocum wrote in response to a request from the BDN for comment on the issue. “The City hopes that public education and discussion will make working, living and visiting the city a great experience for everyone. The city has NOT issued any bans on any type of vehicle in the city and to the best of my knowledge we have no intention of doing so.”
Matt Weaver, one of the proprietors of Weaver’s Bakery on Main Street, said this week that he believed the whole issue had gotten blown out of proportion and that a boycott would do harm to the businesses.
“I encourage any kind of business, certainly,” he said. “It’s a common sense thing.”
Elaine Tucker lives and works in downtown Belfast. She was one of the people who stood up at last week’s council meeting to ask for relief from motorcycles that are customized to generate very loud exhaust noise.
“I don’t think you sound like that unless you really want to annoy people,” she said. “It’s a terrible thing to listen to. In the summertime, on a Sunday afternoon, I can’t sit on my own deck because of the noise. It’s absolutely terrible. I feel like it lowers our property values. It destroys our peace. I don’t know why anybody would want to do that.”
Buzz Stultz of Belmont, who goes by the moniker of “Biker Buzz,” said that most riders don’t make excessive noise or try to annoy people.
“Most bikers who come in are considerate and quiet,” he said from Bowen’s. “Just because a few people get rowdy, you can’t ban them from the city.”
City Councilor Mike Hurley said he would like to correct any misinformation. There is no proposed motorcycle ban, he said. Just a request that bikers adhere to state laws regarding noise and be considerate of the fact that they’re driving through a populated city.
“Belfast is a bike-friendly town,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that any level of noise is acceptable.”