The Ultra Music Festival and the city of Miami have finally divorced after 18 years. They both grew up and grew apart. It was time to go their separate ways.
Anticipating they would be thrown out after their most recent, initially shaky, concert, on Virginia Key, the festival organizers told the city in a letter sent before Thursday’s City Commission meeting that they were done with Miami. Miami would have probably told them the same.
As with any break-up, there’s a backstory. This one is rooted in a political feud between two city commissioners.
Ultra’s anticipated move will be costly for both sides; in money — the city will lose reliable millions from its bottom line — and in reputation. Ultra likely will no longer have a sexy waterfront venue. The annual three-day electronic-music event for years irritated downtown residents when it was staged at Bayfront Park. Their ire, over the volume and thumping bass that rattled their windows, propelled the city to move it to Virginia Key this year.
Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes Bayfront Park and the condos lining Biscayne Boulevard across from it, questioned why the Bayfront Park Trust had authority over park operations, as it has for years. Enter Joe Carollo, chair of the Bayfront Park Trust. He squeezed Ultra for more money in order to stay in the park, got an agreement, then with his customary political sleight-of-hand, voted against it. Russell’s constituents were delighted with Carollo’s move, and Ultra ended up on the environmentally sensitive Virginia Key this year. First-night transportation problems in getting tens of thousands of music fans off the key, were pretty much the final straw. Plus a new batch of residents were ticked off by the noise.
Miami Herald reporter Joey Flechas writes that Homestead Speedway is in play to be Ultra’s new home. Sounds practical, except for transportation and hotel availability, which are huge considerations. However, Ultra would help put Homestead on the map, where it hasn’t been since the vaunted Air Force base went away. There are wide open fields, just made for Ultra’s giant stages and for camping out throughout the festival, Coachella-like. And fewer residents would be close to the music.
Others want Ultra, too. A Hialeah commissioner has been tweeting to Ultra officials to come take a look. Wherever it lands, Ultra is an economic boon that should be encouraged to stay in Miami-Dade.
The marriage between Miami and Ultra began in 2001 when what was a little festival moved to Bayfront Park after debuting in Miami Beach in 1999. Neither downtown Miami nor Ultra was as crowded then — and the pounding music filtered out into the bay. Thousands of people had not yet made downtown Miami a trendy place to live.
The growth of the festival — which now includes global editions in Japan, South Korea, Brazil and European countries — and downtown Miami’s popularity collided. Residents have lived at odds with the festival, held hostage, they said, by weeks of set up, then the crush of concertgoers.
Since 2013, the complaints were as loud as the music. City officials rightly forced the festival to grow up and act like the major event that it is. Ultra hired better security after a guard was trampled by a rush of people trying to crash the concert. It even hired a former Miami police chief to coordinate security.
By 2019, the festival should have been a well-oiled machine. It still can be. But it will be somewhere other than the city of Miami.