Downtown Miami

Miami kicked Ultra out of Bayfront Park. Now the city may bring the festival back.

Ultra Music Festival 2018 - Day 2

Scenes from the second day at the Ultra Music Festival Saturday, March 24, 2018, at Bayfront Park in Miami.
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Scenes from the second day at the Ultra Music Festival Saturday, March 24, 2018, at Bayfront Park in Miami.

In the telenovela of Miami politics, the relationship between City Hall and Ultra Music Festival might be one of its greatest on-again, off-again romances.

Just when it looked like that union might be permanently broken, Miami’s politicians and administrators might try to patch things up: Commissioners on June 27 will consider bringing the three-day electronic dance music event back to its longtime home at Bayfront Park. The proposal, sponsored by Commissioner Keon Hardemon, is expected to pit pro-Ultra commissioners and administrators, who argue for the festival’s economic impact, against neighbors who were happy to be rid of the festival’s booming music.

If three of five commissioners approve, Ultra would cap a whirlwind 12 months of angst and anger with a homecoming to the waterfront venue organizers never wanted to leave. In September, the city kicked the festival out of Bayfront and over to Virginia Key, forcing organizers to quickly stage a massive event while creating environmental and logistical concerns. After an uneven weekend beset by transportation issues and complaints from residents of mainland Miami, Ultra’s frustrated executives said they were pulling out of Miami and began talks with other cities who wanted to host them.

Several South Florida cities including Hialeah and Homestead made proposals. But by then some Miami commissioners were having second thoughts about the split, most notably Hardemon, and publicly shared their thoughts about losing Ultra. Other commissioners welcomed a reconsideration, sparking new negotiations with festival organizers.

Ultra representatives declined to comment on the proposal.

Even the thought of Miami administrators talking to the festival again hit some downtown residents harder than one of Ultra’s famous beat drops. The same group of neighbors who cheered when the event left were shocked and immediately objected. Condo dwellers have for years bristled at Ultra’s presence downtown, demanding concessions or the festival’s departure on multiple occasions. Despite outcry from some prominent politicians over the years, Ultra survived each controversy over the course of its nearly two decades on Miami’s downtown waterfront — a burgeoning neighborhood that grew over that same time period.

It was a poisonous mix of political feuding and persistent resident outcry that got Ultra booted in a stunning unanimous vote. Nine months later, the debate looks to get loud again.

“No to Ultra at Bayfront Park! This resolution, unveiled literally in the dead of night, is a slap in the face!” said Amal Kabbani, president of the Downtown Neighbors Alliance, in a statement. “Not only is the City DISMISSING the health risks to residents caused by the Noise from Ultra — a fact the city is well aware of — it is now also asking every single tax payer in the city of Miami to pay for the security of this event. This deal is even worse than the one the city commission unanimously rejected last September.”

So goes the story of a tourism-driven city struggling with the inconveniences of large-scale events.

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

Next week, commissioners will weigh a new licensing agreement that would return Ultra to Bayfront Park on a year-to-year basis with one significant caveat — revoking the agreement would require a unanimous commission vote. After the 2020 event, which could be held on any weekend in March, the commission would have 60 days after each year’s event to consider canceling the deal.

According to the terms outlined in the proposed agreement, Ultra would pay the city a minimum $2 million to stage its event in the waterfront space while agreeing to occupy Bayfront for only a month, abbreviating a previously longer timeframe the festival had to set up and tear down its stages.

The terms would allow Ultra to close off Bayfront Park entirely for only 14 days. Portions of the park would remain open to the public for the rest of the month. Among downtown dwellers’ top complaints about Ultra: The festival was allowed to close all or part of the park for too long, about two months in recent years.

Ticket surcharges are included in the overall use fee, and if the total surcharge collection adds up to more than $2 million, the city would be entitled to the greater amount. If the agreement were to last three years, the $2 million minimum would increase 3 percent in the third year and continue to increase annually.

City Manager Emilio Gonzalez said the city might net less money because it would absorb up to $1 million worth of police and fire costs during the event, but he reiterated that he sees a greater value in bolstering downtown’s businesses with festivalgoers. Up to 55,000 people would be allowed to attend Ultra, although that number could increase with city approval.

“The net income might not be as much, but UItra’s economic impact outweighs any income the city might get,” said Gonzalez, a vocal supporter of bringing back the festival.

Ultra still owes the city payment from this year’s festival on Virginia Key for fire and police services, waste disposal and taxes, according to the proposed language. If the deal is approved, Ultra would have until July 15 to pay or reach a resolution with the city.

The proposal allows Ultra to operate from 4 p.m. to midnight Friday, noon to midnight Saturday and noon to 11 p.m. Sunday.

Since commissioners suggested in late May that Gonzalez call Ultra executives, the administration has worked to mend broken ties. Miami’s relationship with Ultra weakened in September when commissioners ousted the festival from the park amid a morass of political infighting and aggravation from neighbors’ complaints over lack of access to the park and the festival’s loud, thumping music. Then the hastily arranged replacement venues on Virginia Key created new logistical problems and citizen complaints. Ultra left Miami and courted offers from the Homestead-Miami Speedway, among other local venues.

In November, Hardemon touted Ultra’s move to Virginia Key as a boon for the long-delayed civil rights museum on the island. Virginia Key has the only beach in Miami-Dade County that permitted black Miamians in the time of segregation.

The trust that manages Virginia Key’s public space has sought revenue to support the operation of the planned facility, which would feature the history of the beach and its significance to the community. Ultra gave the trust $1 million as part of its fee for using the island this year. Miami commissioners recently pledged to support the museum’s operations in order to convince Miami-Dade to unlock $20.5 million it has allocated toward the museum’s construction.

The city’s support for the museum would again flow from Ultra’s fee under the new agreement, Gonzalez said. Administrators would earmark some percentage of the city’s $1 million net for the facility.

Ultra’s last tenure at Bayfront Park ended when Commissioner Joe Carollo, chairman of a semi-autonomous agency that manages Miami’s downtown waterfront parks, negotiated and presented a multi-year contract to commissioners. Then Carollo said he opposed the provisions he had negotiated, and the commission unanimously rejected the deal. In the past, the agency had approved Ultra’s agreements to use the park.

The new proposal is going straight to the commission as a revocable licensing agreement sponsored by Hardemon, which could set the stage for a new political dispute. The event would take place on land managed by the Bayfront Park Management Trust, the agency Carollo chairs. The park is also in the district represented by Commissioner Ken Russell, who is running for re-election this year.

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Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, ranging from votes at City Hall to neighborhood news. He won a Sunshine State award for revealing a Miami Beach political candidate’s ties to an illegal campaign donation. He attended the University of Florida.