Miami-Dade County

Ultra Music Festival gets new home on Virginia Key for at least one year

Ultra Music Festival 2018 - Day 3

Scenes from the third - and last - day at the Ultra Music Festival Sunday, March 25, 2018, at Bayfront Park in Miami.
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Scenes from the third - and last - day at the Ultra Music Festival Sunday, March 25, 2018, at Bayfront Park in Miami.

Ultra Music Festival has a new home on Virginia Key for at least 2019.

The electronic dance music festival, a Miami-born event that has grown into an industry heavyweight and global brand over two decades, has a new contract to stage the three-day event on Virginia Key March 29-31, 2019.

Under the deal approved by Miami commissioners Thursday evening, the festival agreed to pay a guaranteed $2 million to the city under a licensing agreement to hold the three-day event at two locations on Virginia Key — in the park outside the Miami Marine Stadium and in Historic Virginia Key Beach Park.

But in true Miami fashion, the process wasn’t simple. The long discussion, peppered with political bluster, was underscored by controversy stemming from Ultra’s reputation for blasting ear-splitting music and creating traffic problems.

A full day of public comments and debate among commissioners featured hours of objections from Key Biscayne residents who fear huge traffic snarls on the Rickenbacker Causeway — the only road used to get on and off Key Biscayne. Commissioners also heard concerns from environmental activists who worry about loud noise harming wildlife and captive research animals on Virginia Key and frustration from Rapture Electronic Music Festival, a smaller event, that had already made plans to stage a concert that same weekend.

In the end, the concerns outlined in considerable detail seemingly meant little to most of Miami’s elected officials. Most of the debate focused on the money. The original proposal included a minimum $1.4 million fee to the city, possibly more depending on ticket sales. Over hours of discussion, Commissioner Joe Carollo aggressively pushed organizers to bring that payment up to a flat $2 million.

Carollo, in classic form, referenced President Donald Trump while bragging about his negotiation tactics and scolding City Manager Emilio Gonzalez for not squeezing Ultra for more money himself.

“You know what the Donald would say? You’re fired,” he said to Gonzalez.

Commissioners eventually approved the agreement 4-1, with Ken Russell voting no.

Commissioner Keon Hardemon, who sponsored the deal, secured a commitment to dedicate half of the money from the first year toward the effort to build an African American museum in Historic Virginia Key Beach Park — a priority for the city’s only black commissioner and Liberty City native. Virginia Key was a blacks-only beach in the mid-20th century.

Hardemon persistently urged approval, even without the $2 million minimum, saying the city should not pass up the opportunity to help the museum come to fruition.

“This is an opportunity to put a greater amount of dollars in the Virginia Key Trust,” he said.

Hardemon explained that the money will help the Trust convince Miami-Dade County to release about $20 million it has set aside for the construction of the museum. The county has held on to the money while waiting for the Trust to demonstrate it could generate enough revenue to maintain the facility after it’s built.

The Ultra agreement is a revocable licensing agreement with no term, meaning the deal can be revoked about a year before the following festival.

The mayor and multiple councilmembers from Key Biscayne spoke out against the proposal, saying they were disappointed when they first learned about the plan from the Miami Herald instead of a letter or phone call from Miami’s top bureaucrats. After the vote, Village Manager Andrea Agha said even though Ultra is moving into the neighborhood over the village’s objections, she felt like the village will now have open lines of communication with Miami City Hall.

“Our goal is to foster a long-term relationship with the city,” she said.

Miami officials pledged to involve Key Biscayne in decisions related to Ultra in the future, including a review of the event after the March 2019 festival.

Gonzalez said he expects Ultra to honor terms in the contract that call for a full traffic plan and strategy for minimizing environmental impacts.

“We will continue to work with Ultra to ensure that our sacred natural resources are protected and to mitigate any negative impacts to our residents,” he said.

Thursday’s approval marked a quick rebound for the festival that looked to be in dire straits in late September, when commissioners rejected a deal to keep the festival in downtown’s Bayfront Park.

“We’re excited that the commission did approve us to come back to the city of Miami,” said Ray Martinez, Ultra spokesman.

The lone no vote, Russell said he did not hear or see anything from Ultra to convince him its organizers could address the environmental concerns raised earlier in the day.

“That may be able to be addressed, but it hasn’t yet,” he said. “I cannot vote yes for this at this time.”

Researchers from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science fear the noise will harm research animals kept in the university’s research facility on Virginia Key. In a letter to the city, Dean Roni Avissar said fish in the school’s experimental hatchery could be so agitated by the loud music that they could die trying to escape their tanks by jumping out or kill themselves banging their heads against tank walls.

“The creation of a major concert venue immediately adjacent to this site will severely degrade this facility and its ability to carry out its mission to study marine animals to better understand the factors threatening these species in the wild and to train the next generation of marine scientists,” Avissar wrote.

Ultra representatives disputed the letter’s claims, saying the highest decibel levels will extend only a short distance away from the stage and won’t impact the research facility. Representatives also said heavy-duty barricades would prevent festival-goers from wandering into protected areas on the island.

Ultra is elbowing out Rapture Electronic Music Festival, a smaller but well-regarded event that had been promised the site for its 2019 festival the same weekend. In advocating for commissioners to reject Ultra’s deal, Rapture’s owners asked the city to consider the festival’s track record for protecting Virginia Key’s environment. They said the news of Ultra’s intentions has already had a “chilling effect” on Rapture’s backers, scaring away investors, performers and potential attendees.

“I’m just shocked,” said co-founder Youssef Khamis.

After the vote, Rapture’s attorney said the festival’s organizers would be exploring all legal options. That could include arguing that the city is improperly using a licensing agreement as a way to avoid negotiating a lease, which would require public bidding — a contention raised by downtown residents who successfully got Ultra ousted from Bayfront Park.

No matter what, critical eyes will be fixed on how the 2019 festival goes. Key Biscayne officials expect to be involved in the run-up to the event, including reviewing plans to keep traffic flowing and protect the environment.

Late Thursday, Ultra organizers released a statement touting the move as the beginning of a new chapter for the event.

“The new venue will allow the festival to evolve into its new, larger home, ultimately creating a more enjoyable experience for all festival attendees,” the statement read.

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