The Cost of Spring Break: Miami Beach Seeks Alternatives to “Armed Camp”

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

The Cost of Spring Break: Miami Beach Seeks Alternatives to “Armed Camp”:

Counter programming, turning off the music, cutting off booze options being discussed

As Miami Beach Commissioners debated alternative programming to counter Spring Break crowds and chaos, Police Chief Dan Oates warned the transition period will still be costly. Oates presented a plan for March 2020 that includes a stepped-up police presence and enforcement similar to the emergency measures enacted during the third weekend of March this year following a couple of unruly weekends and extends it for the busiest two weeks of the month. The price tag is  $2.6 million on top of the currently budgeted $1.1 million for Spring Break.
At the City Commission FY 2020 Budget Retreat, Oates suggested another option. Convince the spring breakers that Miami Beach is no longer the place to be. “Turn off the music on Ocean Drive,” he said referring to exterior speakers. “Shut the cafés, 12:00 pm last call for 15 days in March.” [One alert reader asked about the 12:00 pm time... Oates meant midnight not noon.]

Sidewalk cafés in the Entertainment District are permitted to stay open until 5:00 am year-round. [Updated May 29, 2019: While sidewalk cafés may remain open until 5 am, a 2015 ordinance prohibits alcohol from being offered at sidewalk cafés after 1:30 am and states alcohol may not be consumed at sidewalk cafés after 2:00 am. Sales may resume at 8:00 am.]

“You’ll still have to spend a lot of money on cops next year,” Oates said as the crowd will continue to expect the same atmosphere they’ve experienced in the past, but, he said, “Try that for a year and that may be a way to change things.”
Oates explained the increase requested for 2020 Spring Break: Alpha/Bravo (all hands on deck) staffing from Monday, March 9 to Monday, March 23. Officers would be staffed and deployed similar to Memorial Day Weekend for the weekends of March 14-16 and March 20-23 with supplemental staffing of 50 officers from outside agencies on Friday nights of those two weekends and, similarly, with 100 officers those two Saturdays and Sundays, the heaviest weekends of the Spring Break period.
Acknowledging the goal is to “eventually make us less pleasant to come to,” Oates said until that message gets out, the City will “need this level of staffing” for a couple of years.
His comments generated strong reactions from Commissioners who talked over one another before Mayor Dan Gelber took control of the discussion.
Commissioner John Alemán expressed concern about business owners if sidewalk cafés, where they earn most of their revenue and during “two weeks of the month when they probably make the majority of their money,” were to be closed early. “We need to understand what the revenue cycle is,” she said. “If you kill the patient there’s no point in operating. People are employed there.”
Gelber responded he heard from businesses that their revenue was down during the heaviest two weeks of Spring Break this year. 
“Down March to March but what does March look like [compared to] the rest of the year?” Alemán asked.
Commissioner Joy Malakoff said, “We do not want the Spring Break back here period.” She said Fort Lauderdale ended its Spring Break by getting rid of exterior music and having an earlier cutoff for alcohol. “You have to stop making it so much fun. We’ve already started with the promoters,” she said referring to a new law cracking down on events promoted in local bars and clubs during high impact periods

Alemán said she liked the initiatives implemented so far but wanted to see a conversation that included the business community and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau to come up with counter-programming during Spring Break. She said “Maybe we can be aggressive and creative and bring in private industry and Convention and Visitor Bureau experts. Maybe we can promote something every weekend” during March. But, she said as to a “shut down” of the beach suggested by some, “We can’t do that in a tourism-based economy in March and April.”
Malakoff noted the reopening of the Cardozo and the soon to open Celino Hotel on Ocean Drive as opportunities “to bring back residents and tourists.” At this point, she said, what the street “has deteriorated to is rowdy party time and I don’t believe that’s the brand Miami Beach wants.”
Commissioner Mark Samuelian agreed. “We can’t keep doing what we’re doing. The path we’re on is not sustainable.” He pointed to Panama City’s efforts to curtail Spring Break. “They did reduce alcohol availability.” For future Miami Beach Spring Break periods, he said, “I would think the availability of alcohol would be in the mix.”
As to programming, and the proposal by Commissioner Ricky Arriola to bring the Ultra Music Festival to South Beach during Spring Break, Gelber said current traffic issues are going to worsen as the I-395 bridge construction is in full swing. “That really worries me,” he said expressing concerns about proposals to “solve this problem with a series of events” that would bring traffic though, “hopefully not shooting and violence.” With Ultra, he said, “I worry about the noise.”
Arriola pointed to other events throughout the year on Miami Beach. “We programmed and upped our game during Art Deco Weekend, Pride, Food and Wine, the Air and Sea Show this weekend, Orange Bowl,” Arriola said, calling them a “huge success with no downside.” Yet, he added, “We have not programmed the worst parts of the year for us. Why don’t we do what we do well?”
“If we drive our businesses out of business, that’s not good public policy,” he said citing the potential of “urban blight” which brings crime when storefronts sit empty.
Gelber said, “It feels like an armed camp around here. I like the Hyundai Air and Sea Show” during Memorial Day Weekend, but he cited the hassles to residents who “have to confront the License Plate Readers” which require lane reductions on the causeways into the City and the cordoning off of the Flamingo Park area. “I’m not sure it’s working,” he said.
“The Hyundai show during the day is a very good event, but the question is how do we program our way out of it?” Gelber asked.
“True entertainment versus a cultural district. What do we want to be?... Our residents don’t go to Ocean Drive. That’s bizarre to me that we’re playing into that status quo,” Gelber said.
Arguing Miami Beach is not Fort Lauderdale or Panama City, Arriola came back to programming versus heavy policing. “It’s really embarrassing that we have to lock down our city,” he said.
Alemán said the proposal for additional policing during Spring Break “is a band aid. We’re not solving the root cause of the problem at all.”
“We’re at the point where we’re doing nutty things to keep safety during high impact weekends,” Gelber said. “These high moments are defining us and that’s the problem… we can’t create an armed encampment during a few weekends or months during the year.”
City Manager Jimmy Morales agreed that “there does have to be a balance with the business community.” That said, Morales added, “If they really cared about having residents there [on Ocean Drive]… they’d be more like South of Fifth or Sunset Harbour.”
“They haven’t really, in my opinion, been partners with us,” Morales said, opting to “bring in who will spend a lot of money and not partner with us.” 
“The business community needs to meet in the middle,” he added.
Alemán said, “I’m not opposed to adjusting hours” of alcohol service. “I’m concerned about us being non-analytical… being political about it and doing more damage than we should. Our look is awful during Spring Break, super militant which it has to be right now but terrible.” 
Oates again warned, “If we go the programming route, there will likely be at least a year of awkward transition. People will come expecting what was there. The first year may not work ideally for you so just be aware of that.”
“What is going on is unacceptable,” Gelber said. “We just have to find the right route.”
The problem, Gelber said, is that the heavier police presence has been in place for several years now, “To recede from that is a big deal… no police chief is going to want to do that,” he said. “What’s the upside of doing that” if they’re going to get blamed for the problems? Oates has announced his retirement next month and the City is in process of hiring his replacement.

“To recede from that and that cost,” is the challenge, Gelber said. “We have to figure out how we turn the thing around from we’re incredibly worried about everything to it’s something that has become manageable.”
Samuelian said, “I think we need to do something very different” but said he was “not in favor of a placeholder” for the enhanced staffing in next year’s budget. Instead, he said he supported “incentivizing programs that we know work” to change the atmosphere.

UPDATE: The City Commission voted 5-2 not to pursue the Ultra Music Festival as alternative programming for March. 

Photo: Logan Fazio

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