Bikers gear up for annual toy run But local officials don't want the event at county fairgrounds

October 24, 1995|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

Area motorcyclists are bringing their annual toy-collection event, Operation Santa Claus, to the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds. However, police and county officials are less than thrilled at the prospect of thousands of motorcycle riders coming back to Anne Arundel.

The group's last toy run in the county, held in 1992, ended with a motorcycle rider losing his leg after an accident. This year, the police wanted no part of the group.

Chief Robert A. Beck sent a letter opposing the group to fairground operators. Chief Beck cited the high cost of traffic and law enforcement for the event; an "increase in tensions and violence among several regional outlaw gangs," and drug use.

He also sent the letter to the county liquor board, which last month denied the nonprofit group's application for a one-day liquor license. The group also has pushed back its usual October date because it couldn't find a site. The event is now scheduled for Nov. 4.

Organizers say they have been the victims of negative stereotyping.

"We hear very often, 'Oh, it's a great thing you guys try to do, but not in our neighborhood,' " said Alan Hansen, vice chairman of activities for the toy run. "It is basically motorcycle riders coming out to do their bit to help those who are less fortunate."

The toy run attracts tens of thousands of motorcycle riders and others who donate a toy, canned food or the $5 price of admission. The event has raised truckloads of toys and food for the Salvation Army, as well as money for charities around Maryland.

"I've met some of the organizers, and they seem to be very concerned people that want to make as much good come from their event as possible," said Robert Swyers, business administrator with the Salvation Army in Baltimore.

The event started in 1981 and has been held at several locations in Baltimore and at the city-owned Fort Smallwood Park in Anne Arundel. Since a shooting in 1986, the toy run has been dogged by violence.

When the event was held that year at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, an attendee was critically injured. In 1990, the toy run was moved from the city to Fort Smallwood Park. Two years later, an accident occurred that has led to a lawsuit still being fought in the courts. The rider's lawsuit claims negligence by Anne Arundel County, the private company that operates Fort Smallwood Park and the organizers.

The motorcyclists took the toy run to the General Motors Corp. plant on Broening Highway in Baltimore in 1993 and 1994. This year, they wanted a more hospitable location than the company's parking lot, which is surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire.

They booked the fairgrounds after officials of Fort Smallwood Park rejected their application.

The outlaw biker image associated with the toy run is undeserved, according to Ronald Hoffman, the event's chairman.

"It's a different breed of people now," Mr. Hoffman said. "It's not just all the black-leather-and-motorcycle people."

Today's motorcyclist is more likely a professional man who enjoys a Harley-Davidson, said Mr. Hansen.

At this year's event, as always, Santa Claus will be a fixture. Six bands playing blues, country and rock 'n' roll will be featured. There also will be food vendors, jewelry and leather-goods vendors, children's games and a tattoo artist. A BMW motorcycle will be raffled off, Mr. Hansen said.

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