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Much-debated Mardi Gras festival set for North Miami

North Miami City Hall
North Miami City Hall ldixon@miamiherald.com

A controversial festival is coming to North Miami in January.

The City Council approved a $250,000 sponsorship agreement to bring a Mardi Gras festival to the city. The festival has been discussed for several years. It has proven to be a divisive issue as some residents and city leaders see it as a potential landmark event, while others question the cost, the previous organizer and if the event can be put together in just a few weeks.

Mayor Smith Joseph, Vice Mayor Alix Desulme and Councilman Philippe Bien-Aime cast the yes votes while council members Scott Galvin and Carol Keys voted against the item.

The carnival is set for Jan. 29 and will go from 2 to 11 p.m. along Northeast 125th Street from Northeast 12th Avenue to Sixth Avenue. The organizers said food and music from 15 countries will be presented and that they are negotiating with reggae artists Sean Paul and Shaggy, rappers Jim Jones and Ace Hood and Cuban reggaeton group Gente de Zona.

The agreement is with Fahrenheit Music Festival. The negotiations were initially with Ringo Cayard, a community activist and lobbyist who used to organize the annual Greater Mardi Gras for Miami-Dade County, but in 2008 he was arrested on grand theft and money laundering charges related to the event — charges that were later dropped.

After that he proposed the festival for North Miami in 2013 and was paid about $96,000, but the festival never happened. Cayard’s MAJ Investment Group and the city were never able to finalize a location and a route or establish specific deadlines for executing the event.

Although Cayard had been pushing the event, he is not a registered agent with Fahrenheit — an organization that was established on Dec. 5 — and did not present before the City Council. His son Kevin, who also worked on planning the event three years ago, is Fahrenheit’s registered agent.

The $250,000 will pay vendors for the carnival, with $5,000 going directly to Fahrenheit. Some of the highest costs are about $68,000 for talent booking, $55,000 for technical equipment and about $25,000 for the police department to provide security.

Residents and some council members raised questions about the lack of detail in the contract as initially presented, and the city dealing with vendors that will be selected by Fahrenheit.

“This is going to happen really fast and as a result it’s going to be hard to keep your eye on the ping pong balls,” Galvin said. “I wish you luck but I’m going to be asking a lot of questions along the way.”

Supporters said that the event could help bring the city together, particularly the communities on either side of Biscayne Boulevard.

“There are things that’s going to please the east, there are things that’s going to please the west, but we are one city,” Bien-Aime said.

But many of the questions, in previous discussions, were about Ringo Cayard, whose festivals drew 300,000 people from 20 countries. The county financially supported the event from 2002 until 2005 but stopped after allegations that Cayard misused county grants intended for a former nonprofit and the Mardi Gras event.

Cayard faced multiple counts of grand theft and money laundering but the charges were later dropped and he was ordered to enter a diversion program for first-time offenders.

His later plans to bring the festival to North Miami were first approved in March 2013 by the City Council under Mayor Andre Pierre but after Mayor Lucie Tondreau was elected, the plans stalled. Questions about Cayard’s past were also raised in those discussions.

He appealed twice to city leaders, in October 2015 and in April 2016, in an effort to make the event happen. Council members expressed hesitation both times and pointed to the previous investment and a lack of details in the presentations as reasons for their reticence.

The estimated costs for the carnival are less than the 2013 estimate of about $385,000. Staff said the 2017 festival will likely cost more than $250,000 but the city will not have to invest beyond that amount.

The organizers are also waiting for Florida Department of Transportation approval to close 125th Street. The event could be postponed if that permission isn’t granted.

Lance Dixon: 305-376-3708, @LDixon_3

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