Music & Nightlife

‘We just outgrew each other.’ Ultra is third big event to leave Miami in 14 months.

Tens of thousands leave Ultra and walk miles across Rickenbacker in Miami

Tens of thousands of festival goers make their way out of the 2019 Ultra Music Festival in Virginia Key, Florida on Saturday, March 30, 2019.
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Tens of thousands of festival goers make their way out of the 2019 Ultra Music Festival in Virginia Key, Florida on Saturday, March 30, 2019.

Ultra Music Festival’s departure from Miami has people wondering where the three-day electronic dance music event will land next, but it also sparks a pivotal question for Miami’s urban core.

The city and surrounding region happily play host to some annual big-ticket gatherings that fuel the tourism industry and pump dollars into the local economy. Among them: Art Basel, the Miami International Boat Show and the Miami Open.

Yet in the span of 14 months, Miami has lost or scared away three large entertainment events. Rolling Loud, South Florida’s fast-growing premier hip-hop festival, left Bayfront Park to avoid conflicts with neighbors and politicians and landed at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. Formula 1, which sought to establish a home for a yearly Grand Prix in downtown, recently abandoned a yearlong effort over similar concerns. It also turned to Hard Rock .

So while Ultra plans to move somewhere else in South Florida — the festival is talking to Homestead-Miami Speedway, though it’s unclear if other venues are in play — Miami is left to consider its future as host to large annual events. Has the city hit its limit?

“We have to ask ourselves: What does that mean for us as a city?” Commissioner Keon Hardemon said Thursday during a discussion on Ultra’s cancellation of a city contract to hold its festival on Virginia Key. “What is it that we want to be?”

Before Thursday’s discussion, Commissioner Ken Russell suggested the divorce was unfortunate but inevitable because of residents’ concerns.

“It’s a shame Ultra is leaving,” he said, “but we just outgrew each other.”

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Miles Church, 26, from California, dances to the music during the 2019 Ultra Music Festival in Virginia Key, Florida, on March 29, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Ultra, the annual Miami-born electronic dance music festival with a large international audience, announced on Wednesday it would leave the city. The festival was ousted from its longtime home at Bayfront Park in September when commissioners rejected a multi-year contract for the three-day event to stay. A brew of politics and opposition from downtown residents fueled the ouster — including a feud between commissioners Russell and Joe Carollo over the direction of Bayfront Park.

Hardemon’s colleagues agreed it’s time to reflect, though some residents are happy with a shift away from welcoming big shows with open arms. Miami’s burgeoning downtown residential community has played a role in redefining the use of Bayfront Park, for example. Neighbors’ complaints over noise and disruption also factored into Rolling Loud’s voluntary exit. After kicking Ultra out, commissioners agreed to limit the number of large events at Bayfront Park.

Even beyond Miami’s city limits and with events that are typically welcome, the debate over the area’s identity has sharpened in recent years as Miami-Dade County’s most well-heeled residents clashed with the inconveniences of major tourist draws. South Beach residents have railed against the influx of visitors who visit during Spring Break and Memorial Day weekend. The Boat Show has faced strident opposition from the Village of Key Biscayne, which objected to the traffic and raised environmental concerns.

Those same gripes resurfaced when in November, Miami approved a licensing agreement for Ultra to move to Virginia Key. The move sparked lawsuits from another music festival that had already been booked to produce its event the same weekend and Brickell residents who didn’t want to hear the music blare from Virginia Key. Both legal challenges failed. But the residents’ suit signaled just how serious the opposition was.

Over the next four months, the festival scrambled to produce a multi-stage weekend music festival at a new site — an island location with one road in and out. Ultra fans complained of disorganization and long waits for shuttle buses after the first night’s performances on the key ended March 29. The next two nights went smoother after some adjustments, but even with some of the logistics ironed out, the noise complaints came in from mainland residents in Brickell, the Grove and The Roads.

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David Winker, the attorney who represented the Brickell homeowners, said Ultra’s decision to leave reflects poorly on the city’s ability to juggle residents’ concerns with lucrative special events.

“It became clear to me through my litigation with Ultra over the past few months representing the Brickell Homeowners Association that there was only one group that wanted Ultra on Virginia Key — the city of Miami,” he said. “This is just utter mismanagement and lack of leadership at the city of Miami, and a really, really bad result for local business.”

What’s next?

As Miami sorts out its growing pains, Ultra has to decide where it goes next.

The Herald confirmed that Homestead-Miami Speedway is in the running, though it’s unclear if there are other candidates. Sources familiar with the matter said Ultra also visited Hard Rock Stadium, but that idea was scrapped. If the Ultra Music Festival chooses the Homestead-Miami Speedway to host its annual electronic music celebrations, festival attendees likely won’t be confined to the Speedway’s racetrack.

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Final day of Ultra Music Festival on Virginia Key on March 31, 2019. Alexia Fodere for The Miami Herald

The 650-acre venue, which sits on land owned by the Speedway’s parent company outright and other swaths under lease with the city of Homestead, annually welcomes upwards of 100,000 NASCAR fans during race weekends.

“There’s a lot of open land,” a track official said. “For race weekend, we use it all.”

While the grandstand seats about 46,000 people, the surrounding land allows for RV camping, parking and — most recently — a hot-air balloon festival. Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the racetrack, which has played host to the NASCAR Cup Series finale for the past 17 years.

It will host the race for the final time this November, following a scheduling change that will bring drivers to the track on March 22, 2020 — within a week of Ultra’s usual dates. If both events were to come to Homestead in March, during high season when hotels in South Miami-Dade are already near capacity, issues could arise, said Kerry Black, CEO of the South Dade Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re always at 95 percent already,” she said. When race fans come down to Homestead for race days, she said, they tend to spill into Monroe County and the Florida Keys.

Black said the chamber’s executive committee discussed the possibility of Ultra’s move to Homestead on Thursday. Located between two national parks — with the Everglades to the west and Biscayne National Park to the east — Homestead-Miami Speedway is surrounded by several gated communities.

Black said residents there have grown accustomed to the roar of engines at the track and the noise of planes flying to and from nearby Homestead Air Reserve Base, but that visitors to South Dade have come to enjoy the otherwise “countryside feel” of Florida’s deep south.

A spokesman for the racetrack said he had nothing to add to the remarks made Wednesday by Homestead City Manager George Gretsas, who told the Miami Herald that he had been made aware of conversations between Ultra and the Speedway. Gretsas added that he relayed the information to his City Council Wednesday.

“It is our expectation that at some point, they will formally submit a proposal,” Gretsas said.

On Thursday, the speedway’s president, Matthew Becherer, sent Homestead a letter asking the city to allow the facility to run events until 2 a.m. Without explicitly mentioning Ultra, the request appears to be part of a bid to lure Ultra to south Miami-Dade — and there’s likely competition.

“Homestead Miami-Speedway has found that to be competitive in attracting the most lucrative festivals to Miami-Dade County, promoters are looking for the ability to provide entertainment later than the currently existing 11 p.m. curfew,” Becherer wrote.

More fallout

Back in Miami, some residents were elated to see Ultra go. Ernesto Cuesta, president of the Brickell Homeowners Association, said he believed it was a “myth” that crowds of mostly younger electronic music fans injected enough money into the local economy to balance out the disruptions to residents’ quality of life.

“You cannot compare the class of individuals who attended the tennis tournament to the people that attended Ultra,” he said. “I think that it’s a myth that Ultra was bringing a lot of money to the city.”

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Final day of 2019 Ultra Music Festival on Virginia Key on Sunday, March 31. Alexia Fodere for The Miami Herald

The business community disagrees. Last year, when Miami commissioners were considering a new contract for Ultra to stay in Bayfront Park, multiple downtown business owners extolled the economic benefits of Ultra’s longtime presence downtown. They ranged from bar owners to printing shops employed by the festival.

According to a 2017 report by the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, Ultra ranked among the top events for revenue per available hotel room. The metric shows Ultra’s value to Miami’s crucial tourism industry, a value that comes from more than just the three days of concerts. The festival acts as the finale to several days of electronic music parties known as Miami Music Week. The week leading up to Ultra also includes Winter Music Conference, a long-running industry gathering that the festival acquired in 2018.

Bill Talbert, president and CEO of the convention bureau, noted the festival’s importance and said he was confident the area’s hospitality industry would still benefit if the event moves south.

“They’re still going to stay in our hotels,” Talbert said.

That could be less likely if Ultra ends up in Homestead on land outside the speedway, where the festival might allow revelers to camp on the grounds and stay overnight, as race fans do.

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