LACONIA, N.H. (AP) – Bikers in black leather roared into New Hampshire for the start of the 85th Laconia Motorcycle Week. But even as the sound of revving engines filled the air, vendors and businesses worried the slowing economy and high gas prices might keep typical large crowds away.

“Everything’s being affected and motorcycle week is no different,” said Charlie St. Clair, executive director of Laconia Motorcycle Week Association. “Everyone’s exposed to the cost of fuel. Some people have had to cut back on their trips because of that.”

The economy and prices at the pump also cut into the number of vendors hawking everything from fishnet body stockings to baby T-shirts.

The rally officially began Saturday.

Laconia officials said the number of vendor permit applications appeared to be down this year. They weren’t able to specify how much until the final count is taken.

“Not having vendors is good for local business,” said St. Clair, who explained bike week increases business throughout the state.

But no one knows how many people will attend the nine-day rally – billed as the oldest and one of the largest rallies in the country.

“That’s the million dollar question,” said Dean Michaud at his Hawaiian shaved ice stand. “I’m a little concerned – all the vendors are.”

“More than 50 percent of the vendors here will lose money or break even,” said vendor George Dyer, who has sold leather products at bike week for 15 years. “Your middle-income people are barely making it. How can they afford to come here?”

Fred Clausen, owner of Proctor’s Lakehouse Cottages in Laconia, was worried last week, when he said a 10 percent vacancy rate in reservations for bike week – a five percent increase from last year. But he wound up selling out.

“We very much depend on bike week revenue,” Clausen said previously. “It’s a boon to the economy and we in turn take the money and spend it in the local shops, stores, businesses.”

The week generated more than $175 million dollars in 2004, according to an estimate by RKM Research and Communication.

The once-rowdy rally received national attention in 1965. There was a riot and the National Guard fired shotguns filled with birdshot and rock salt into the crowd.

The rally started in 1916, but there were seven years with no official rally. Over the years, it has become more family friendly, drawing crowds as large as 420,000, according to St. Clair.

“The last couple years, it’s really mellowed,” said parking attendant Peter Newell. “It’s not as much the parties stopped – it’s that the guys here have gotten older.”

But the changing demographics and lagging attendance didn’t seem to concern the hordes of bikers cruising slowly down the main strip of Lakeside Ave. to show off their customized machines.

“If you’re anybody, this is where you come,” said Toby Botsford, 55, of East Hampton, Conn.

Botsford came up for his 30th rally to check out the bikes.

“It’s a see-and-be-seen bunch of bikers getting together and enjoying each other’s company and each other’s bikes,” said Heather Twilley, 44, from Ft. Myers, Fla.

And those who see Walter Roach will see a new Harley Davidson logo tattooed on the back of his shaved head.

Roach, a 47-year-old machinist from Milford, was at his first bike week. He said he chose the tattoo because he has a Harley.

“It’s motorcycle week,” St. Clair said. “People have a passion to be here.”

AP-ES-06-14-08 1644EDT

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