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Ultra Music Festival's main stage at Miami Marine Stadium in March 2019.
Ultra Music Festival's main stage at Miami Marine Stadium in March 2019.
Photo by Daniella Mía

Miami Beach's Discussion on Ultra Music Festival Got Pretty Elitist

Last night, Miami Beach commissioners discussed entering negotiations with Ultra Music Festival, which recently parted ways with the City of Miami. Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who sponsored the agenda item, called the festival a "free agent" and suggested that having Ultra on the Beach could change how spring break plays out in 2020.

After two hours of public comment, commissioners voted five to two against even entertaining a conversation with Ultra's leadership team. More importantly, the discussion revealed Miami Beach's worst impulses when it comes to tourism, class, and race. Multiple hoteliers and commissioners spoke in favor of attracting elite, moneyed visitors — supposedly the "right" kind of tourist.

John Aleman, the only commissioner besides Arriola to vote for negotiating with Ultra, expressed support for the festival because she believes the city should "attract people who will pay a higher hotel rate."

"Their crowd [at Ultra] spends a lot of money and doesn’t shoot anybody, you know, and that we like," Aleman said. "We want the right, high-profile events that are gonna bring people, but people that are gonna behave appropriately, pay a high room rate, that are gonna eat in our restaurants, that enjoy fine dining and fine entertainment, cause that’s really what we’re about."

The sentiment was echoed by several hotel owners, most of whom claimed their occupancy is down in recent years.

Robert Finvarb, a developer and hotelier who owns Hyatt and Marriott properties in Miami Beach, said he supported Ultra as a way to combat the "massive, massive issue" of spring break and Memorial Day, events that bring a high number of black visitors to the city.

"The images that are being transmitted across the world about what’s taking place during spring break and Memorial Day of last year and prior years is a disaster for our business," he said. "I mean, imagine a family from the Midwest coming to check into our Hyatt or a Marriott hotel and not expecting to see gang violence on Collins and Washington avenues. That’s what we’re enduring every day."

Simon Nemni, who owns the Clinton and Red South Beach hotels, said rowdy spring breakers are the result of cheap hotel prices. He encouraged commissioners to bring events to town that will attract wealthy tourists.

"The reason we have the wrong crowd during spring break, especially the last year — it’s all about rates," Nemni said. "You don't need police to stop fights during Art Basel... It’s more expensive to get into Ultra than it is to go to the opera, so it’s a high-end event."

Several speakers, including Nemni, suggested bringing a jazz festival to town instead of Ultra. Commissioner Joy Malakoff, who opposed having Ultra in Miami Beach, added that the city should look into poaching a country music festival such as Tortuga, which is held in Fort Lauderdale.

Scott Geraghty, who runs the Faena hotel group, was the only resident to question why a jazz festival was so quickly considered an alternative.

"It can’t all just be all arts or jazz," he said. "It needs to be everything within our community, and I think this community has always been very welcoming of everything."

While the focus of Arriola's agenda item was whether to court Ultra, the topic of spring break loomed large. Malakoff suggested the city should enact an earlier last call and end late-night outdoor music.

"I think if the spring breakers don’t have fun here, they won’t come back again," she said. "It’s not like the college spring break of years ago, where kids had a good time and played on the beach. These are gangs, these are fights, these are things — as many people mentioned — that go viral along the internet and just show the worst part possible of Miami Beach."

"Spring break is out of control," added Commissioner Michael Gongora. "We have a problem. It is a beautiful month. We should be filling up our hotels with top-tier paying tourists who should be coming here to attend A-list events, and that’s what I hope we take from tonight’s item."

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