Miami-Dade County

Miami commissioners expected to decide Ultra’s future on Virginia Key in May

Thousands leaving Ultra chose between long lines or walking over Rickenbacker Causeway

Tens of thousands of festival goers chose to leave Ultra Music Festival by waiting in long lines for transportation or walking more than 3 miles over the Rickenbacker Causeway in Virginia Key, Florida on Sunday, March 31, 2019.
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Tens of thousands of festival goers chose to leave Ultra Music Festival by waiting in long lines for transportation or walking more than 3 miles over the Rickenbacker Causeway in Virginia Key, Florida on Sunday, March 31, 2019.

Decision day is set for Ultra Music Festival’s future on Virginia Key.

Miami commissioners will hold a public hearing May 9 to decide if the marquee electronic dance music festival can stay on the island for another year. The three-day festival debuted at two venues on Virginia Key at the end of March, the first time in nearly two decades Ultra was held somewhere other than Miami’s downtown waterfront.

Two weeks after Ultra’s rocky debut on the island, festival planners and city administrators have entered a two-month period where either side can revoke the agreement that gives the event license to use two sites on Virginia Key, the lot outside Miami Marine Stadium and a section of Virginia Key Beach Park. Ultra organizers have already publicly stated they want to return.

Some commissioners’ positions were pretty clear during Thursday’s commission meeting. Commissioner Joe Carollo read a series of emails from Miami residents who complained about the bass carrying across the water onto Miami’s mainland.

“My main reason why I’m going to oppose extending this contract is because of our residents,” he said.

Carollo was instrumental in killing Ultra’s chances of staying in Bayfront Park last year, negotiating a new contract for the festival to stay in its longtime home and then rejecting the deal on the day of the vote, citing downtown residents’ complaints.

On the other hand, Commissioner Keon Hardemon commended city staffers and Ultra’s organizers for producing a “marvelous” event, despite being given long odds with an abbreviated planning schedule — Ultra’s deal to move to Virginia Key was approved in mid-November.

“I want to say thank you to Ultra,” Hardemon said. “Whatever narrative has been put in the media, this was a tremendously successful event.”

The festival attracted scrutiny after festival-goers complained about long lines and a disorganized exit at the end of the first night of the event. Organizers and police coordinated a more orderly effort on the second and third nights, though Key Biscayne residents have complained that a smoother exit meant a bigger traffic jam on Key Biscayne because of priority given to buses queuing for pickups.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and the city’s top administrators want to keep Ultra on Virginia Key, but only if the electronic dance music event’s organizers agree to turn down the bass, end the concert earlier in the night and improve its plan for moving more than 50,000 to and from the island. Suarez outlined his proposed changes at Thursday’s commission meeting, including reducing the maximum number of tickets that can be sold and improvements to the transportation plan.

“The continuation of this event at Virginia Key depends on these issues being significantly improved,” Suarez said. “This goes not just for Ultra but for all related music events.”

Now the decision lies with Miami’s government, which has heard from agitated residents and politicians in both Miami and Key Biscayne, people concerned with Ultra’s impact on Virginia Key’s sensitive environment and proponents who argue the three-day festival is a major economic boon to the city.

Tuesday night, Key Biscayne council members unanimously reaffirmed their opposition to Ultra’s presence on Virginia Key. The council had a range of opinions about Ultra, some deeming it a mere traffic nuisance, and others focusing on lost business and fewer visitors to the county parks on the island.

Environmental activists told elected officials in both Miami and Key Biscayne this week that they are still researching the possible impacts on Virginia Key’s wildlife.

Miami commissioners said they want to widely publicize the May 9 hearing to give all proponents and opponents a chance to speak their piece.

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