Miami Commission: Ultra stays in downtown Miami

Ultra will return to downtown Miami despite one city commissioner's attempt to show that the music festival gives the city a bad name.

04/24/2014 8:00 AM

09/12/2014 11:53 AM

The Miami City Commission voted Thursday to keep the Ultra Music Festival downtown, but not before one commissioner — intent on ousting the festival —showed photos and a video that he said depict in graphic detail why the electronic dance music festival gives Miami a bad name.

Commissioner Marc Sarnoff played a video of a woman, purportedly a festival-goer, gyrating and kissing a palm tree trunk. He displayed other, sometimes blurry photos that he said were from previous Ultra festivals. One showed a partly clothed woman with another woman snorting a white powder. A different photo showed a woman hiking up her skirt while standing over what looks like an unconscious man.

He has said the raunchy depictions, which he presented from the City Commission dais, were pulled from YouTube and blogs.

“This is not a good thing for downtown,” he said.

Sarnoff and Mayor Tomás Regalado have opposed hosting future Ultra festivals in downtown Miami citing quality-of-life issues for area residents and safety concerns. This year, on Ultra’s opening night in March, a security guard was critically injured when gate crashers pushed their through a chain-link fence, running over her.

“Residents complain they are prisoners in their homes for three days,” said Regalado. When residents go out, he said, they are harassed “by young people who want to be friendly in excess.”

But the rest of the commission largely backed the three-day electronic dance music festival, saying Ultra is a major economic driver for the region and provides positive exposure for Miami, worldwide, despite some negative incidents.

Commissioner Francis Suarez compared the festival, which draws more than 160,000 attendees, to Art Basel and the Miami International Boat Show.

“It really does put Miami on the map,” Suarez said.

Commissioner Keon Hardemon said he believed the photos and videos that Sarnoff displayed — including one that Hardemon said showed a sex act between two women — represented isolated incidents, including the woman-and-tree video.

“There are people who have had sex with worse things than trees,” he said.

He said residents who live in downtown Miami expect to be part of city life, including the concerts and events at nearby venues.

“I’ve never met a person who moved to downtown for peace and quiet,” he said.

The commission’s 4-1 vote to keep Ultra in the city’s downtown — Sarnoff voted “no” — comes with conditions.

At Ultra 2015, organizers will be required to set up mental health and drug stations operated by health professionals, an effort to address commissioners’ concerns that some concert-goers are on drugs. And Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa said his officers work to root out drug dealers at Ultra.

“We are not after the casual person smoking a joint or popping a molly. We go after the person with a bag with an intent to sell,” he said.

Organizers will install two layers of more-secure “G8” fencing to deter gate crashers after the injuries suffered at this year’s festival by 28-year old security guard Ericka Mack. Ultra will be required to hire additional Miami police officers and only police officers will be allowed to patrol the perimeter where gate crashers have been known to fling themselves over the barriers.

Mack, whose injuries included a broken leg and fractured skull, is at home recovering after spending weeks at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Brian May, Ultra’s lobbyist, blamed Mack’s injuries on the dozens of people who stormed the fence, calling them criminals. He said Ultra’s organizers are continuing to review their security plans to look for any other potential problems. Ultra hired outgoing Miami Beach Police Chief Ray Martinez as its security director. He’ll work with the city to develop a revamped security plan for Ultra 2015.

“Ultra does not take the safety and its security as a second-tier priority,” May said.

Proposals by some Ultra supporters and Sarnoff to require attendees to be at least 18 years old were not discussed. Ultra is marketed as an all-ages affair.

May, who showed the commissioners footage of an Ultra segment taped in Miami for a Japanese talk show, said the festival adds to Miami’s image as a world-class city.

“To lose [Ultra] would be something that is damaging to the Miami brand in the future,” May said.

Russell Faibisch, Ultra’s founder, attended Thursday’s meeting but did not address the commission. Afterward, he released a statement saying he was “pleased” with the commission’s decision.

“We are also extremely happy for our fans from around the world who love coming to Miami to be part of Ultra,” the statement said. “The setting for the event in downtown Miami is part of what makes the event magical.”

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