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Written by Adam Schachner - BT Contributor   
April 2013

Once again, the Ultra Music Festival brings big money -- and big headaches – to downtown Miami

TPix_AdamSchachner_4-13he downtown streets were overrun with shocking Day-Glo yellow, green, and orange masses. Flamboyant youth descended on Miami in droves. The unusually brisk mid-March nights did not discourage the faithful from wearing minimalist getups; there would be plenty of body heat where they were going. Ground-shaking bass beats pounded from stages at Bayfront Park, invading eardrums throughout downtown.

Ultra Music Festival had returned.

Ultra’s annual extravaganza represents both a celebration and a burden for Miami. Debate precedes its yearly arrival, and its continued contract with the city. Arguments bounce back and forth like so many dancing concertgoers. Advocates for the festival see profit, tourism, and cultural recognition. Those who don’t roll with that rhythm see a messy drain on resources, traffic nightmares, and a lot of noise reverberating off the downtown skyline.

Add to the mix this year’s expanded menu of Ultra festivities -- two weekends, instead of one -- and the obstacles to finding common ground are compounded.

The conflict extends to city government, as the virtues and frustrations associated with the festival are discussed among elected officials. William Plasencia, a senior staffer for Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose District 2 includes Bayfront Park, affirms his boss’s position, offering that “the commissioner has gone on the record opposing the second weekend. There’s too much pressure on the area.”

Yet the possibility that Ultra is doing more and more things right every year is also noted by Plasencia: “We’ve heard from residents that it is greatly improved from last year, particularly the traffic.”

Certainly the revenue from the event is enough to buy it some reconsideration. As of this year’s first weekend, Plasencia says, the event brought in “hundreds of thousands of dollars for overtime pay. That was bigger than we heard back in October, when the second weekend was approved.”

The event’s financial benefits are undeniable. “The thing that people fail to recognize,” asserts Tim Schmand, Bayfront Park’s executive director, “is that Bayfront receives no government funding. Events like Ultra or the [Mercedes-Benz] Corporate Run allow us to fund our programming. You can’t run a park on bake sales.”

Last year Ultra netted Bayfront Park $455,000 over one weekend. Schmand predicts the added weekend this year will more than double park revenue. Ultra also brings jobs downtown. “Cleaning cost for the crew is $298,708. Solid waste is $33,000,” Schmand informs. “And that is all paid for by Ultra Music Festival. The crews are over 100 local workers.”

While Ultra offers the trappings of a jet-set lifestyle more typically associated with Ibiza or Sao Paulo, it also carries club culture’s stigmas. Attendees are criticized as wild or morally ambiguous. Yearly rumors that the latest designer drugs will be readily available terrify the parents of ravers waiting to flock to the event.

The festival draws a specific crowd and their loosened wallets, but the attraction extends far beyond Bayfront’s Klipsch Amphitheater. Amid the behavioral tumult, downtown residents coexist with flashing light displays and the insistent duntz-duntz-duntz of drums and bass.

During the festival’s first weekend, the parade of ticket-holders stretched beyond downtown; noisily colorful groups lined the streets close to Bayfront. The distinct -- some would say negative --impact Ultra had on the city’s functioning became apparent.

Miami’s very layout was forced to change in order to accommodate Ultra’s monumental crowds. Police transformed Biscayne Boulevard into a circuit crossing. Fencing and partitions corralled partygoers into a winding path off the sidewalk and into the street, barriers separating pedestrians from cars.

Northbound traffic was rerouted into southbound lanes. Cars navigated around hordes of glowing participants who traveled by Metrorail and Metromover (an exponential boost to transit ridership). Meanwhile, most of Bayfront Park was inaccessible during the weeklong break between shows.

These alterations embody the duality of Ultra’s influence. While the city’s routine was altered, many of these disruptions provided substantial income. Downtown shops filled with fluorescent-garbed celebrants. Music tourists crammed hotels. Service staffs logged overtime.

According to an often cited study conducted by Coral Gables-based business consultants the Washington Economic Group, Ultra brings the city roughly $79 million every concert series. Each year brings in about 900 jobs related to the event. This year those numbers no doubt will increase, owing to the extra weekend of activity. Love it or hate it, the city is dancing to Ultra’s tune, and seems to be benefiting.

Ultra is rapidly becoming a Miami tradition. The name itself is symbolic: “Ultra” suggests the extensiveness of the festival’s hype and its followers’ limitless devotion, yet it also represents the sizable revenue produced during the festivities. Bystanders to this year’s phenomenon can attest to its enormity.

Eddie Padilla, executive director of the business and promotion collaborative Downtown Miami Partnership, recognizes the opportunities for increased profits represented by this year’s festival. Beyond the ticket sales, there are incentives for festivalgoers to stick around throughout the week. “[Attendees] are going to restaurants and businesses downtown,” says Padilla. “Initially, the Partnership didn’t look at the crossover between two weekends. Now, it is definitely a positive impact.” 

The economic boost is welcome, but, as Padilla notes, there is also a community to consider. Downtown residents previously have voiced their concerns over noise, the need for increased law enforcement, and excessive trash. “The residents have had some impacts,” Padilla acknowledges. “We are trying to address those. So we’re working with police, the city, and the [Ultra] organization to make sure that cleanup efforts are sufficient.”

The Downtown Miami Partnership looks toward next year and beyond. Padilla points out that “it’s incumbent upon everyone impacted to voice their opinions -- positive and negative -- so we can put forth challenges for the upcoming years.”

Schmand, for his part, likens Ultra to a Woodstock for today’s youth: “Dance music is like folk music for Miami. After disco went mainstream, there was still a following for it on Miami Beach, which was ground zero for dance music in Miami. What Ultra has done is move it out of the clubs and into a larger position.”

Looking ahead to another year of Ultra, downtown residents and officials can anticipate conflicts along with the celebration. Ultra may never find unanimous support or an enthusiastic welcome downtown, but the festival will be back.

Concerned residents are therefore left to weigh how a weekend -- or two -- of inconvenience every year stacks up against the promise of continued funding for one of the city’s signature attractions, Bayfront Park.

 

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