With the economy quieting the tourism game in northern Minnesota this summer, the prospect of 500 to 1,000 visitors roaring into tiny Carlton County this week has prompted a mix of anxiety and enthusiasm.

Cops have been bracing for months. Business people are crossing their fingers. After all, when the notorious Hells Angels bikers swarm in for their annual USA Ride on their way to Sturgis, S.D., they'll be packing both cash and a gnarly reputation in their saddle bags.

"It's good news, I'm excited that they're coming and look forward to seeing them," said Tim Rogentine, owner of the Lost Isle Bar on Hwy. 210 in Carlton.

His establishment will be closed for a private function from Wednesday to Sunday. Asked to confirm that the Angels rented out his bar, Rogentine said: "Um, I can't say. I've signed a contract that says I can't give any interviews."

Apparently, there are legal documents in those saddle bags, as well. The Black Bear Casino near Cloquet also declined to confirm the Angels had booked 250 rooms at its hotel. Police expect the bikers to spread out at campgrounds and hotels from Cloquet to Duluth, up the North Shore and ride to their Minneapolis clubhouse during their Minnesota stay. (A knock on that clubhouse door was greeted with a polite decline for an interview Friday from a well-tattooed guy.)

For nearly six months now, hundreds of law enforcement agents from Carlton, Pine and St. Louis counties -- plus 30 State Patrol troopers and some federal agents -- have been planning to be on hand to greet the Hells Angels.

"You don't poke a hornets' nest with a stick, but you sure do like to know where the hornets' nest is at," Pine County Chief Deputy Steve Ovick said.

Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake, who has only 19 field officers in her department, welcomes all the cooperating agencies as she coordinates a show of force. Public meetings have been held in the area to calm the citizenry.

"We're not advocating people lock themselves in their basements by any means," Lake said. "We're telling them to go about their daily business and report any suspicious activity. We're planning for the worst and hoping for the best."

Last year fairly quiet

When the Angels rumbled through Missoula, Mont., on their USA Ride a year ago, there was one reported gang rape of a drunken young woman who was unable to identify her attackers, but few other serious injuries and no deaths.

"I consider rape a serious injury, so I have to qualify it when I say it was no big deal," said Mike McKeekin, the sheriff of Missoula County. "Of course, they want everyone to be scared to death. But they're really just a big bunch of vacationers coming to town -- just with a different potential than other groups."

This year, there's heightened concern because the Hells Angels are gathering only 10 minutes from the border of Wisconsin, considered home of the rival Outlaws gang.

"They carve out their territories and are very protective of their turf," said author Julian Sher, who documents the gang's violent ways in his book "Angels of Death."

Ovick, the Pine County deputy, compared the Hells Angels-Outlaws feud to a "ninth-grade mentality. "They hate each other, but the difference is, they shoot each other," he said. "Don't misconstrue this as a bunch of guys who like motorcycles. This is an organized criminal gang."

He noted that the Angels were the first to distribute methamphetamine and came up with the nickname Crank after smuggling meth in the crank cases of their motorcycles.

In recent years federal prosecutors have attempted to use mafia-inspired racketeering laws to attack the Hells Angels and other outlaw motorcycle groups, but with only limited success. In 2007, a Seattle jury found the Washington Nomads branch of the Angels to be a "criminal enterprise" but similar attempts to prosecute members of the Mongol's motorcycle club for a deadly Nevada brawl in 2002 fell apart.

In Minnesota, prosecutors have won drug and money laundering convictions against several individual members of the local Hells Angels, but a federal Court of Appeals overturned the government's seizure of the Minneapolis clubhouse.

'A Taliban bake sale'

Sher said public outings like the USA Ride "are largely public-relations dog-and-pony shows for the bikers."

He said the media tend to cover the roaring motorcycles, and when the club members remain more or less law abiding, their image improves.

"Their PR machine is as well-oiled as their Harleys," Sher said, noting their high-tech website that allows you to purchase gear (www.hellsangelsmn.com). "The mafia doesn't have a website.

"Nothing much happens at these largely party events, so the bikers turn around and say: 'See, we're just rebels without a cause, lovable rascals and motorcycle enthusiasts,''' Sher said. "It's like the Taliban holding a bake sale and it misses the point of what they're doing when the public and police aren't watching."

Financial questions

With lean budgets, law enforcement agencies are scrambling to pay for the security needed next week. Unlike the Republican National Convention last summer that came with millions of federal police dollars, this time they can't exactly send a bill to the Hells Angels. Last year in Montana, the bill for law enforcement neared $500,000.

Lake estimates her Carlton County Sheriff's Office will rack up $25,000 in overtime. She has applied for some federal grants through the Recovery Act. St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman said he's able to parlay some federal money to pay for overtime because of Duluth's international port and proximity to Canada.

"That will help defray some of the costs of deployment of extra staff, so it won't all be a direct expense to the taxpayers," he said.

And whatever money the Angels spend in Minnesota will offset the costs.

"Any money would be good in these times," said Dan Danielson, a Carlton county sheriff's deputy. "We hope they come and spend a lot of money and enjoy themselves."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767