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City Approves Ultra Music Festival's Move to Virginia Key

Ultra is trading the downtown skyline for an island location.
Ultra is trading the downtown skyline for an island location.
Photo by George Martinez

It all came down to money. Commissioners Joe Carollo and Keon Hardemon basically wanted Ultra Music Festival to pay a much higher fee to use Miami Marine Stadium and Virginia Key Beach Park for its 2019 edition. The festival agreed to pay $2 million, and Hardemon insisted a large part of that money go to the struggling Virginia Key Beach Park Trust.

The resolution passed 4-1. Commissioner Ken Russell cast the only disapproving vote.

"I don't like how this has been done," Carollo said. He wasn't happy about how quickly the city agreed to the resolution and believes that through ticket sales and sponsorships, Ultra can afford to pay around $3 million.

There was also plenty of opposition from the public during a hearing this morning. Most of the criticism came from Key Biscayne residents. Many critics see Ultra as a source of noise and traffic, and some residents worry that schoolchildren at the nearby MAST Academy would be exposed to drugs and alcohol. (Because Ultra starts on a Friday afternoon, classes presumably won't be in session for the duration of the festival.)

However, Russell seemed to dismiss the criticism this afternoon by saying he visited Ultra last year and didn't see the chaos that was being described. "I saw a well-oiled machine," he said. "Unfortunately, [Ultra is] still paying for the sins of the past."

Still, Russell said he couldn't vote for the resolution because of the environmental concerns and added he's unsure how the wildlife and ecosystem would react to such a massive event.

Hardemon also brought up the issue of displacing Rapture Music Festival, which is scheduled to take place at the park March 29 and 30, 2019. Those dates overlap with Ultra's. Hardemon says the city needs to ensure that Rapture can hold its event next year but didn't offer any concrete suggestions about how to do that.

City Manager Emilio Gonzalez said in a statement: "The [commission’s] vote in favor of an agreement with Ultra Music Festival keeps this world-renowned event in our global city, while providing operating funds for a long-desired African American History Museum at Historic Virginia Key Beach."

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Ultra will need to prove it can hold the event with minimal disruption, because the agreement with the city is revocable. Carollo warned he wouldn't hesitate to ban the festival from returning to Virginia Key in 2020.

Virginia Key will be Ultra's fourth venue in its 21-year history. It was started in 1999 by Russel Faibisch and Alex Omes on the sands of Miami Beach near the Collins Park area before moving the festival in 2001 to downtown Miami, where it bounced between Bayfront Park and Bicentennial Park (present-day Museum Park).

In Ultra's early years, downtown was effectively a ghost town after 5 p.m. on weekdays and throughout the weekends. But as wealthy and more powerful residents moved back into the central business district, the tide began turning for the festival. In 2014, the city started to reconsider Ultra's value after security guard Erica Mack was trampled by gatecrashers. However, it was the Downtown Neighbors Alliance that really drove the festival out of Bayfront Park. Members complained that the noise and traffic, as well as the inability to access the park for weeks, made the event a nuisance.

With its Virginia Key location, Ultra will be far removed from residential areas. However, traffic is a major concern because the Rickenbacker Causeway is the only road that connects Virginia Key and Key Biscayne to the mainland. Also, many environmentally sensitive areas sit nearby. So if Ultra hopes to remain in Virginia Key for the foreseeable future, it will need to play nice with Key Biscayne residents and environmentalists.

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