Motorcycle club: We're in Decatur for fun, not trouble

DECATUR – Rumors that the Hell's Lovers motorcycle club is coming to Decatur are true.

But just about everything else cranking up the rumor mill is totally wrong, according to the club and the Decatur Conference Center and Hotel, where Hell's Lovers is hosting its 50th anniversary convention from today through Sunday.

Hotel general manager Donna Wickersham said she has heard fearful stories of outlaw motorcycle riders tearing up the town just as it gets ready to host the annual Decatur Celebration. Wickersham says all of those rumors are nonsense.

“I knew bringing the group here would create a stir in the community,” she said. “But I was not going to put this club, this hotel or this community at any risk. And I tell you, I would give these guys the key to my car and the key to my house. These guys are great.”

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Flags belonging to the Hell's Lovers motorcycle club adorn the outside of the Decatur Conference Center and Hotel for the group's 50th convention. Each flag represents a different state.

TONY REID, HERALD & REVIEW

The club was founded in the 1960s in Chicago and claimed more than 1,500 members across the U.S., according to a 2010 Chicago Tribune article about one of the organization's founders. Nationally, media reports have said members of the club have clashed with rival motorcycle groups, and arrests have resulted in some cases. 

Big Al, 58, a retired construction foreman with the city of Chicago who would not give his last name, describes many of his members as “professional people” who can afford to lavish $25,000 or $35,000 on their bikes. He said the club is a “brotherhood” for those who like to ride. “Men hanging out with other men, like golfers who hang out with other golfers,” he added.

It's expected that up to 1,400 Hell's Lovers members from every corner of the country will descend on the Decatur hotel for a long weekend of music, feasting, club anniversary events and entertainment. All 370 rooms are sold out and the club has booked out several other nearby hotels, too.

Wickersham estimates the event is worth some $600,000 in extra economic activity.

While the cash boost was appealing, she still adopted a trust-but-verify approach. She said it's taken a year of negotiations and planning and she has worked extensively with the club's second in command, who is known as “Big Al.”

“He spent two days alone trying to convince me they really were the Hell's Lovers, not the Hells Angels,” she said. “The rumor mill in town is that we booked the Hells Angels; we would not do that.”

Wickersham even spent three days in 2016 attending the club's convention in Louisiana. She checked how members behaved with the management of their hotels, staff and other guests. “We knew what the reaction would be in the Decatur community and so we did our due diligence,” she added. “There were no problems with them at all.”

He said the club will “shut down” the Decatur Conference Center and Hotel and its grounds. Only club members will be allowed on the premises during their convention and he said members will not be attending the Decatur Celebration.

Big Al said the club is very security-conscious and he's spent $4,600 hiring large passenger vans to take members to activities, like shopping at the Coziahr Harley-Davidson dealership ion Forsyth.

“We don't want our members riding up and down the street and being messed with, like 'Oh look there's some bikers, let's get 'em,'” said Big Al. “We're going to be in and out of this town so fast, the only people who is going to know we was here are those counting the money in their cash registers.”

Decatur Celebration producer Lori Sturgill said she wasn't afraid of the bikers, just a bit disappointed they won't be sampling her big show. “They've booked their own bands and have their own dinners set up,” she said. “They don't have any interest in our festival.”

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TONY REID
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