Downtown Miami

Go back to the drawing board on Ultra deal, Miami commissioners tell city staff

In a turn of events that wasn’t altogether surprising in an already protracted saga, Miami commissioners on Thursday voted unanimously to defer a proposed agreement that would’ve brought one of the world’s most popular music festivals back to downtown Miami.

One by one, commissioners expressed doubts at their meeting Thursday about a proposed agreement that would’ve allowed Ultra Music Festival to return to its longtime home in Bayfront Park.

Under the resolution, sponsored by Commissioner Keon Hardemon, the city and festival organizers would have entered into a revocable licensing agreement, meaning the city would decide on a yearly basis whether to permit the festival to stay in Bayfront Park. One of the provisions that commissioners found most onerous would require a unanimous vote by the commission to cancel the agreement.

“I will not shackle the city of Miami that way,” said Commissioner Manolo Reyes. He said the deal was great for Ultra but didn’t do enough for the city.

Commissioner Joe Carollo said the proposed deal lacked financial gain for the city. He also was bothered by the absence of city manager Emilio Gonzalez at Thursday’s meeting. Gonzalez was an open proponent of bringing the festival back to Bayfront Park.

“I for one am not going to be a lap dog and just let people do as they please,” Carollo said. “He was the one that did the negotiations, and he’s not here.”

The message from commissioners to city administration was clear: Go back to the drawing board.

Reyes urged deputy city manager Joseph Napoli to meet with festival organizers and come back July 25 with a revised deal.

Napoli said the deal did include some controversial terms. A revised agreement would need to include a new financial model and address the festival’s noise level, he said.

“These are the terms we were bringing to the commission based on our direction to re-engage with Ultra and see what it would take for them to come back,” Napoli said.

Abby Witt, from Columbia, South Carolina, cheers as Hardwell performs at the main stage during the first day of 2018 Ultra Music Festival in Bayfront Park. MATIAS J. OCNER

Commissioners pushed for the revised deal to include more input from downtown residents, whose opposition was a main reason elected officials voted down the festival’s return to Bayfront Park back in September 2018.

“I think if this gets deferred the neighbors would consider that a victory because [Ultra] is on a tight time frame as it is,” Commissioner Ken Russell said. “I think it’s a mistake on [Ultra’s] part not to have worked or negotiated with the neighbors.”

The deal before the commission called for organizers to pay the city a fee of at least $2 million to host the festival downtown in 2020 — and potentially more if ticket surcharges totaled more.

Ultra’s history in the city of Miami has not been without political drama, controversy or citizen complaints. Thursday’s episode comes in the aftermath of the festival’s move in March to Virginia Key, where it had logistical and environmental setbacks, which led to festival organizers canceling their contract with the city in May. Other cities including Homestead and Hialeah courted organizers to be the festival’s new home, but then Miami commissioners showed remorse over the festival’s split with the city.

“Virginia Key was basically a timeout for Ultra,” Russell said. “They didn’t want to leave downtown, but they didn’t do things correctly from a neighborhood perspective and political perspective to see that forth. My prediction is that they were rushing this and negotiations. They’re going to need another year to figure this out.”

Russell said if that means the festival should head to Homestead instead of downtown Miami for 2020, then so be it.

For commissioners, deciding whether to bring Ultra back to Bayfront Park was a balancing game — trying to appease residents while catering to businesses who view Ultra as a serious money maker. Since 2012, Ultra has generated almost $1 billion in economic impact, according to the city, and $168 million in 2018 alone. The festival also brings jobs to the city, pro-Ultra speakers said Thursday.

“At the end of the day it’s a homegrown product that brings a lot of economic development and a lot of revenue,” said Evelio Medina, president and CEO of the Downtown Miami and Brickell Chamber of Commerce. “All in all, nothing is perfect. I do think it helps Miami. That scene brings a lot of extra dollars from around the world.”

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

Amal Kabbani, president of the Miami Downtown Neighbors Alliance, said much of her opposition to bringing the festival to Bayfront Park is because of the disruption it brings in terms of noise and the park’s greenscape.

“We’re not trying to turn a vibrant city into suburbia,” Kabbani said. “It really has nothing to do with Ultra. We just don’t see how a large festival that draws 60,000 people can exist at Bayfront Park.”

After the commission’s decision, Kabbani said in a statement on behalf of the alliance that Ultra organizers had never responded to the alliance’s proposals for compromise.

Ultra’s organizers were not at the meeting when it came up for discussion, and a spokesperson for the festival chose not to comment.

“I do like the idea that we are trying to not lose Ultra,” Russell said. “I do believe Miami is where it should and could be. They will always be welcome if they work with those around them. We’re not acting so desperate to write a contract that is not the best for the city.”

Hardemon, the item’s sponsor, said it’s unlikely much of a difference would’ve been made if Ultra promoters had been present.

“I think if they were here today, the only thing that could happen here would be an attempt to continue to negotiate, and negotiating on the dais sometimes works, sometimes it doesn’t,” Hardemon said.