Minutes before the Installation Ceremony was set to begin for the incoming mayor and council members’ was set to begin, across the bay in Coconut Grove, the city of Miami was ending a long, standing room only meeting at city hall. It was the night Miami formally passed a resolution to move the Ultra Music Festival from Bayfront Park to Virginia Key. The three-day electronic dance music festival is set to play on the barrier island March 29-31.
The long and at times tense back and forth negotiations, primarily between City Commissioner Joe Carollo and attorney Miguel De Grandy, representing Event Entertainment Group on behalf of Ultra, finally reached a compromise.
It was mostly about money, but also freebie tickets, maximum daily attendance, and deadlines to resolve environmental and traffic concerns before a final go is granted.
Two sites are to be utilized for Ultra, with at least three staging areas on 17 acres of the Miami Marine Stadium grounds, and about 20 acres on Virginia Key Beach. Temporary barriers are to be built to prevent shore line access.
A maximum of 60,000 attendees are allowed on site daily. A surety bond will kick in if there is resulting permanent environmental damage, and an indemnification clause holds the city harmless.
The city will be paid $2-million for a revocable and renewable one-year license agreement, $1-million of which will go to the establishment of a long sought African American museum on Historic Virginia Key.
A Maintenance of Traffic plan, or MOT, will be presented similar to the boat show plan. It will require shuttle services financed by Ultra, and a dedicated lane for islanders. An environmental consultant team, to be approved by the commission, will be brought in to address concerns.
As they deliberated, some commissioners seemed uncomfortable with what Carollo suggested was too much of a rush. He requested slowing the process down, even at least for a day.
But resolution sponsor Keon Hardomon was not having it. He paced the room and at one point emphatically encouraged his colleague Commissioner Manolo Reyes to present a motion. “We have bigger game to fry,” Hardomon said, “and this isn’t it.”
Commissioner Ken Russell visibly struggled when he stated his “no” vote against the festival’s new location. He gushed about watching Japanese American DJ Steve Aoki perform when he attended Ultra last year, and claimed to likely be the only commissioner who enjoys electronic dance music.
“I did not see a mosh pit. I did not see drugs. I saw a well-oiled machine,” Russell said of the nearly 20 year old event, which he believed remains haunted by its past.
According to the Sun Sentinel, In 2016 University of Miami senior Adam Levine died after attending Ultra. The same year an inebriated Brazilian woman was allegedly raped in a Metrorail utility room upon leaving the venue. However, Russell and others associated with the event said security measures have improved dramatically.
Russell said his disapproval was related to the unknown effects on protected area wildlife and sensitive mangroves, plus the fact the city was circumventing their own rules by ignoring prerequisite presentation of the plan to the Virginia Key Advisory Board.
“This hasn’t even gone to the Virginia Key Advisory Board and . . . it’s supposed to,” said Russell. “Now it’s going to go to them after and what they say doesn’t even matter.”
“When groups like Tropical Audubon, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper and the Rosenstiel School just next door tell us we need to be worried, and we haven’t addressed that up here, and I haven’t heard solutions from Ultra that ease my mind, I have to weigh that with the hundreds of emails I’ve gotten from my residents in the city of Miami that are in opposition,” he said
The opposition sustained most of the morning’s three-hour stream of citizen comment, although there were a few pro-Ultra speakers and most available seating was occupied by Ultra fans in matching white logoed polo shirts.
Speakers had two minutes to say their piece before the microphone was turned off. Whomever spoke then had to leave to make room for others waiting to speak.
Key Biscayne Mayor Elect Mike Davey, councilmember Brett Moss, former council member Luis “Lucho” de la Cruz, newly elected council members Ignacio Segurola and Luis Lauredo, council member Katie Petros, and council candidate Jeffrey Gonzalez, were standing together in one line on the west side of chambers.
The island officials spoke against the proposal, as did Miami Neighborhood United’s Grace Solaris, and Tropical Audubon Society spokesperson and Virginia Key Advisory Board Member Gary Malano. Both aid the vote to move Ultra was in violation of legal precedent and city charter.
“I am a member of the Virginia Key Advisory Board and this has not come before this board,” said Malano. “This resolution violates three major rules and regulations for the city.”
Former mayor Bob Vernon dittoed Malano’s remarks and added, “you cannot even kayak (in the adjacent bird sanctuary) without a special permit.” Miami resident Bradley Left expressed concern that manatees and birds would be spawning then, and could vacate their nests.
“We wouldn’t leave our dog in a room with loud noise for three hours, much less three days,” said Left. “Why would we subject wildlife, which is far more vulnerable than any canine or human would be?”
Kelly Cox, attorney for the non-profit Miami Waterkeeper group, said the event is a bad idea after a summer of red tide and algae bloom that resulted in injury and death of stressed wildlife. “The noise, light, and human debris interaction on the island is not sustainable. She feared that millions spent on mangrove forest preservation efforts could be lost due to potential fires from Ultra pyrotechnics that would then be difficult to extinguish.
Mayor Davey apologized for starting his term with hurt feelings on both sides of Biscayne Bay. City manager Emilio Gonzalez had declared he was offended by Key Biscayne’s media campaign against the resolution. Davey said his reference to mobilization efforts reflected only a fervent effort to protect residents.
“We have one way on and off,” said Davey. “You are going to impact our life safety. Last year I believe you had 150 runs by city of Miami fire safety and you had 30 transports, and that’s just the people at the event. It’s ignoring that my people are going to be put at risk because of the traffic impacts on Virginia Key.”
A moment of levity came when Conchita Suarez, 88, received a warm round of applause after reporting she would turn 89 in a few months. “I have a simple message for you,” she said. “I am fairly healthy. However, emergencies occur all the time. How are you going to allow ambulances and people who need to get to a hospital if Ultra is there? Please consider not allowing this.”
Following the lunch break, Ultra attorney and former state representative Miguel De Grandy led off the afternoon deliberations with a presentation on behalf of his client. He started with quotes from Rolling Stone and Billboard magazine naming Ultra the world’s most important and best electronic dance music event.
“It is a homegrown event that is now on six different continents -- making Miami a world class destination,” he said. De Grandy then presented figures from a Washington DC economic group that showed Ultra being responsible over the past seven years for $850 million is positive economic impact, $10 million in Florida sales tax revenue, and 4,500 jobs.
Acknowledging the event would inconvenience Key Biscayne residents, De Grandy said it goes with the territory. He said ancillary effects like traffic challenges are inevitable for a world-class destination that features events like Coconut Grove Arts Festival, Miami Heat games and Calle Ocho Festival.
He also chastised the village for running what he called a “campaign based on false information,” referencing a recent Miami Herald story that said post-concert debris images, including spent hypodermic needles and trashed beach sites, were from Ultra.
“They have presented a false and slanderous portrayal of the Ultra Music Festival,” said De Grandy.
Speakers for Ultra talked about it being a remarkable experience full of positive energy, creative talent, and peace-loving vibes. But the main case for the annual event was economically driven.
“If you go around the world today and talk to young folks and say ‘Ultra’ they say ‘Oh Miami music it’s magic!’” said William Talbert, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.
For the hotel industry, the revenue earned during Ultra is “some of the most productive for the hotel industry in the history of Miami. We support it strongly.”
For Irvine McKnight , a senior volunteer companion, the real issue isn’t heads in beds but rather African American elders getting to spend a subsidized day on the beach. “Some of them are 90 years old on fixed incomes and Virginia Key is the only beach they know, thanks to Jim Crow,” said McKnight.
“Well those seniors support Ultra, not because they’re into electronic music, but because they’re looking for a revenue stream for Virginia Beach…so they don’t have to dig into their budget to provide an outlet for them.”
Including $1 million for the Virginia Key Park Trust in the Hardemon Ultra deal, to be used for creation of an African American history museum, seemed to seal the deal.
The Trust, which operates Historic Virginia Key, supported the proposal for that reason.
Gene Tinnie, a historian and Trust chairperson, was allowed additional time at the podium to explain in detail how the park -- the only beach segregated blacks were allowed to enjoy from 1945 to the early 60’s — came to be.
“It became a hub of black life…brought together all neighborhoods and social classes,” said Tinnie. “It was a tourist destination for celebrities who could perform on Miami Beach but not stay there.”
The park was shut down in 1982 due to high operational costs. It was re-opened in 1999 following a grassroots effort that successfully defeated an exclusive resort development plan.
According to Hardemon, the $1 million is the key to releasing the counties’ reserve funds towards the museum, which has been on hold until the daily management cost issue was resolved.
“For the first time we will have something that can provide the groundwork for that sustainability,” said Tinnie. “We are talking about a structure that is more of the land than on the land.”
Ultra proponents claim to have resolved the noise complaint issue, capping it at 110 decibels, which is similar to other music shows on Virginia Key. But Carollo remained skeptical, with continuing concern the noise would travel across the water and create a cacophony of problems.
Although DeGrandy said the MAST Academy next door fears were a “red herring” because the event is the weekend following spring break, PTSA President of MAST, Julio De Armas, is fearful about drugs being in dangerous proximity to the public high school.
With regards to traffic, even with commitment to a MOT, engineer Robert Duzoglou said the basic issue is that infrastructure has not kept up with the city’s growth. “The tremendous stress just from the seven million cars of annual visitors that go through the tolls every year to Bill Baggs State Park is too much,” he said.
City commissioner Wifredo Gort assured the Key Biscayne contingent that the island would be represented before all was said and done. Before the vote, Village council member Lauredo was allowed closing remarks. He promised to work with the process.
Outside the chambers , Lauredo said, “the glass is half full. We are now an integral part of the negotiation moving forward. And if the glass is half full it’s because of the citizens of Key Biscayne who moved fast and made an impact.”