Ultra Music Festival could lose its prime waterfront location unless it agrees to pay the city of Miami more than double the current cost of staging the three-day concert, which for years has angered downtown residents who hate the noise and traffic.
The demand for $2 million annual payments to the agency that oversees Bayfront Park, coupled with persistent complaints from downtown residents, adds a new layer of pressure on Ultra organizers and raises questions of whether the popular electronic music festival will agree to stay on Miami's waterfront.
The conversation also underscores an increasingly strained relationship between the city commissioner who leads the agency that controls Bayfront Park and the commissioner for the district that contains the park.
Under Ultra's most recent contract to use the park, it paid Miami a combination of a use fee and a ticket surcharge placed on each admission. Over the life of the five-year contract, it netted the city an average of about $663,000, and $742,000 this year alone. The contract expired after the March festival. Commissioner Joe Carollo, who doubles as chairman of the Bayfront Park Management Trust, wants Ultra to pay a $2 million flat fee under a new contract. That would be a significant revenue increase for the Trust, a semi-autonomous agency that runs the park on its own budget, separate from the city's parks department.
"I'm telling them it's no less than $2 million," Carollo told the Miami Herald.
He also wants to city to reevaluate how Bayfront Park is used and possibly cut the number of events it hosts. Residents complain the number of days the park is closed to general public use because of festivals and other events has more than tripled since 2011.
Ray Martinez, a former Miami Beach police chief who now serves as the festival's security director and its lobbyist, said Tuesday he couldn't comment on specifics of negotiations with the city.
"We've been in discussions with the city and the Bayfront Park Management Trust. The negotiations are ongoing and moving forward," he said.
One event that might be willing to pay Carollo's price is the Rolling Loud Festival, the hip-hop event that left Bayfront Park this year for Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. The festival was held in early May in the parking lot outside the stadium where the Miami Dolphins play.
When Carollo talked about Ultra at last week's City Commission meeting, he said he's heard Rolling Loud might want to come back to Bayfront Park. On Tuesday, founders Matt Zingler and Tariq Cherif of Rolling Loud did not deny being interested. They issued a statement saying the festival will "choose the venue that provides the best experience for our fans, artists and sponsor and vendor partners."
"Over the last two years, we have had great experiences organizing Rolling Loud Festival at Bayfront Park and Hard Rock Stadium and are entertaining all available options for hosting the 2019 event," read the statement.
Ultra's negotiations are playing out against a backdrop of surging resident unrest and mounting political tensions between Carollo and Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes downtown and the park. Though Russell is the district commissioner, Carollo leads the agency that controls Bayfront Park.
In what some perceived as a political maneuver to undermine Russell's position in his own district, Carollo invited about 30 downtown residents to Thursday's commission meeting. Many wearing white hats emblazoned with “Save Bayfront Park” in green letters, the residents pleaded with the city to fund the park and limit the number of events that close off park access to the public.
Several of them spoke, railing against Ultra for more than a hour. They pointed to studies they commissioned to analyze Ultra's noise impacts, which showed the persistent loud bass sounds blasting from the festival can cause hearing damage for residents across the street and rattle windows and fixtures. They also cited figures from the Trust that show events caused the closure of the park for 115 days in 2017 — a significant increase from 2011, when the park was closed for only 35 days.
"The city of Miami needs its central park to function as it was assigned, as a park to be enjoyed by both residents and visitors," said Rev. Pedro Martinez, who lives in the 50 Biscayne condo tower across from Bayfront Park. He asked commissioners to direct city money to the park so the Trust doesn't have to sanction events to shore up its budget, events that he said are "making people's lives a living hell."
"Let's stop the prostitution of the park to multiple events," he said.
In response, Ultra lobbyist Ray Martinez told commissioners he personally speaks with neighbors when they have concerns. Overall, he feels the festival, which has been staged at either Bayfront Park or Museum Park for 18 years, is a boon to the city.
"Let's look at the positives. We talk about Miami wanting to be a world-class city. Ultra is a world-class event," he said. "It is the Art Basel of electronic music."
On Tuesday, Martinez said festival organizers have provided a complaint hotline for people to report issues and responded to residents' concerns by adjusting build-up and tear-down schedules immediately before and after events to allow residents more access to the park.
Residents at last week's commission meeting who hoped for more public dollars for Bayfront Park received little more than political jabs between Carollo and Russell. After discussion of whether the commission could divert $2 million in park impact fees toward Bayfront Park — which couldn't happen on the spot because of city budgeting rules — Russell suggested the city disband the management trust so the city's parks department could run Bayfront Park.
"What you're asking for is to take your park back, to have more say in how many events go there, to see that it becomes a city park," said Russell, who walked away from the meeting shortly afterwards.
Carollo later dismissed the idea as political posturing that would only give "influence peddlers and lobbyists" an easier board to lobby — the City Commission. Instead, Carollo said he welcomed direction from the commission on how the Trust should select events.
"I would need the support of this commission to decide how much do we want there. Which are the events we want there? Which are not?" he said.