Thousands leaving Ultra chose between long lines or walking over Rickenbacker Causeway
The Homestead City Council voted Tuesday night to allow Homestead-Miami Speedway to stay open until 2 a.m. should organizers of the popular Ultra electronic dance music festival choose the south Miami-Dade city as its next venue.
The racetrack, which is owned by the city and leased and operated by the speedway, closes at 11 p.m. for events, but the seven-member City Council voted 4-2 (one council member was absent) to extend its hours so Ultra organizers would consider holding the three-day concert there in 2020.
Ultra organizers ended the festival’s contract with the city of Miami earlier this month rather than hold the festival again on Virginia Key next year. This year’s festival had problems with a shuttle system that left concertgoers stranded for hours, drew complaints from Miami residents about the loud music and tangled Key Biscayne residents in heavy traffic getting on and off the island.
Most of the seven residents who spoke at the special meeting held at Homestead City Hall Tuesday were against holding the festival at the speedway for reasons that included noise, traffic and drug use.
“I just can’t imagine having that music until 2 in the morning,” said Evelyn Martin, who lives in the Fairways subdivision.
After City Councilman Elvis Maldonado said about 50 percent of the concertgoers at a similar event he attended in Las Vegas for research on Ultra “were on drugs,” resident David Vega said he couldn’t support holding the event in Homestead.
“It’s very disturbing to hear the relationship between Ultra and drugs,” Vega said. “I don’t think we should bring this into Homestead or anywhere in south Miami-Dade.”
But the four council members who voted in favor of extending the track’s hours of operations for Ultra said they needed to balance those concerns with the potential that the concert and other similar events could make Homestead more of a destination for tourists instead of a place people pass through on their way to the Keys.
“Personally, I would like to see more music festivals come down south and put us on the map with some limits,” said Councilwoman Jenifer Bailey. “I think that opens up a lot of doors.”
Vice Mayor Jon Burgess said the speedway is at the mercy of NASCAR, which since 2002 has held the last race of its season in Homestead in November but in 2020 will move the final race to Phoenix and give Homestead a date in March instead. The track needs to hold more large events if it’s going to thrive, he said. Otherwise, Burgess said, it risks the same fate as the $21 million Homestead Sports Complex, which opened in 1991 as a spring training site for Major League Baseball, but languished and slowly rotted after Hurricane Andrew destroyed much of the city a year later. The 6,000-seat stadium was finally demolished Monday.
“We need to reach out and allow them to bring a success to our product, because we own it,” Burgess said.
Councilman Larry Roth agreed.
“We have an asset out there at the speedway,” he said.
Burgess warned his colleagues of another consequence of waiting to vote on the issue. Not only is the Miami Beach Commission mulling holding Ultra there — its original location when it debuted in 1999 — some city of Miami commissioners are discussing whether they should try to woo the concert back to Bayfront Park, a venue from which the city kicked Ultra out last fall.
“If we don’t do it tonight, we may not have an opportunity to do it again,” Burgess said.
Mayor Stephen Shelley voted in favor of the proposal, but said he is wary of Ultra’s request to have a 10-year contract with the track in case things do go wrong in the first year.
“There’s a potential to having committed to something I don’t know the consequences of yet,” he said.
Maldonado and Councilman Julio Guzman were the two “no” votes. Guzman said since Ultra and the speedway have yet to make an agreement, he and his colleagues could not expect to make a reasonable decision about the proposal. Chief among issues left unresolved is whether the stage would be set up inside the grandstands rather than elsewhere on the property, which could affect how clearly the music is heard by neighboring residents.
“We are not in a position to make a decision on this tonight,” he said.
The vote did come with conditions for Ultra organizers. The site plan for the festival would have to be approved by Homestead’s city manager. All traffic plans would have to be approved by the city’s police department. Ultra organizers would have to indemnify the city should anything happen to anyone at the concert. All insurance companies covering the concert would have to be approved by the city. Organizers would have to work with the Homestead Air Reserve Base to make sure the base was not holding training on the same weekend as the concert. And Ultra organizers would have to agree to a $2 per day surcharge on ticket prices that would go to the city.
The council members instructed the city manager to word the language about the surcharge vaguely so that the number could be increased in later years.
Al Garcia, senior vice president of operations at Homestead-Miami Speedway, said Ultra is looking into mitigating noise issues by aiming the speakers toward Turkey Point Nuclear Generation Station or more southeast. He said the event in Las Vegas that Maldonado referenced was not audible to residents who lived three blocks away from the venue.
“This is probably the best location for the event,” Garcia told the council members.
The music festival is expected to bring about 50,000 people per day to the track or its surroundings, which he said would contribute millions of dollars to the local economy. Many people who attend car race events at the track camp there, and Garcia said he expects about 40 percent of the Ultra attendees would do the same if the concert were held in Homestead. The camping would lessen daily traffic problems in the area, he said.
Despite Ultra’s reputation for heavy drug use, Garcia as well as Homestead police who have worked the event in the city of Miami said the crowd typically does not cause problems and arrests are usually for minor crimes.
“Just the type of things you get when you gather 50,000 people,” said Homestead police Maj. Josh Clot.
There were 37 arrests at this year’s Ultra, Garcia said.
Burgess said in the event’s 21-year history, one concertgoer died at the hospital after suffering a seizure.
If Ultra comes to Homestead-Miami Speedway, Garcia said he hopes it paves the way for other major music festivals to be held there.
“I would envision two or three of these types of music events on a yearly basis,” he said.