Still Trying to Bring a Pop Festival to Miami Beach

Ocean Drive

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Still Trying to Bring a Pop Festival to Miami Beach:

Organizers present new date, longer lead time

The organizers of the proposed Miami Beach Pop Festival continue to try to find the right date, the right location, and the right plan to satisfy City Commissioners and residents. Following several community meetings earlier in the year and an expression of “serious concerns” by City Manager Jimmy Morales about the impact of the festival, they withdrew their plans for an event to be held in December.
Concerned about event fatigue after Art Basel and the impact of a large event on the environment and traffic, many residents opposed the idea and the organizers withdrew the item from the Commission’s March agenda. They were back this week to suggest a different date: November 2019.
Bruce Orosz, CEO, of Act productions and a 30 year resident of Miami Beach, produced the City’s Centennial celebration in 2015. He told Commissioners, “We are doing much due diligence. We have done much due diligence. We want this to be an effective, community-involved participatory event that we can all be proud of going forward. We believe this festival will shine a world class light on the City that will bring about a very high-end experience for our neighbors and our city to show off to the rest of the world.”
“It has become clear from our due diligence that we need a long runway,” Orosz continued. “We need a lot of planning and we would like to put this together for November 2019.” With 18 months to plan, Orosz said, “That gives us lots of lead time and big events require lead time.”
Orosz is working with two experienced local producers to bring the festival to Miami Beach, Paul Peck and Steve Sybesma. Peck was involved in the launch of Bonaroo and Outside Lands. Together with Sybesma, he co-founded the Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival. Sybesma has produced more than 6,500 concerts in his career.
Peck said this week, the organizers have listened closely to understand the City’s needs and said his team is capable of delivering that. “We’re looking to create something like a New Orleans Jazz Fest, an internationally driven cultural institution for an affluent audience, with family-oriented programs ... that every year will boost culture and drive meaningful cultural experiences on South Beach.”
Their plan puts a focus on multiculturalism and diverse programming, he said. In addition, a component that “shines a light and celebrates the environmental issues facing this and other coastal cities” would be included. They also want to work with local schools to support youth music initiatives.
Finally, Peck assured Commissioners, “We hang our hat on well-organized operations.”  The idea is to grow the festival every year but to first start really strong. “We’re going to take our time to do it right.”  
Sybesma said the producers had already met with the Police Department three times, as well as the Fire Department and Ocean Rescue to iron out the safety concerns. He said now they were asking Commissioners to give direction to the public safety agencies and other departments to work with them to develop plans that can be approved.
South of Fifth resident Frank Del Vecchio said the proposed event, like Memorial Day Weekend and Spring Break, would “send residents fleeing because of traffic jams ... We don’t need this event. The City Commission is wrestling with how to safeguard Ocean Drive. They’re wrestling with Spring Break and Memorial Day.” He asked Commissioners to give “give an answer to these gentlemen who are very good at what they do” so they don’t continue to spend their time planning an event if it isn't going to be approved.
Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce President Jerry Libbin supports the festival. His organization plans to contribute international cultural programming to the event. “We don’t have a plethora of family events on Miami Beach.” Noting the producers bring a “well-established professional organization and extensive plans” that include benefits for residents and a well-thought out security plan, Libbin said, “They are asking for one year to demonstrate their ability and I think that’s a fair ask.”
Commissioner Ricky Arriola told his colleagues, “There’s a culture of fear and I think the Air and Sea Show went off really well last year [on Memorial Day Weekend] … but there was strong opposition to it.”
“I don’t buy into the culture of fear,” he continued. “I am cautious in moving forward with these kinds of things but I would say that there are a lot of models out there that we should think about emulating.” He used last week’s Tortuga Festival in Fort Lauderdale as an example.  
“Very well attended, brings a lot of tourists. And, again, went off without a hitch. So why can Fort Lauderdale do something successfully but we’re afraid to do things? Where would Miami Beach be without our major special events? Food and Wine, Art Basel. If those things were coming to us for the first time in 2018 and we had this mentality of saying no to special events, where would we be? So, I’m open to this. I would be against a concert that is simply a free for all, that is really a moneymaking venture for the concert promoters to have a wild party on the beach.”
What he does want to see, he said is a “well-planned, coordinated, themed event” using concerts that are focused on environmental causes or human rights as examples that resonate with people. “Something true to our brand,” he said such as “efforts to be an inclusionary society that’s diverse or something that impacts the environment, climate change, resiliency etc.”
Arriola said he supports active programming “that attracts tourism and business to Ocean Drive” that is family friendly with ample assurances with regard to security and traffic. He urged the organizers to coordinate with Ocean Drive businesses and the hotel industry to ensure the dates they ultimately choose don’t overlap with an already busy weekend. Arriola said he wants “incremental tourism” that would “not push out tourism that would normally come.”
He said he wasn’t sure the first or second weekend in November dates are quite right. “If we’re very busy that November weekend, we might look at another week in which we can further help our hotel community.”
But he said, “I have every confidence that our City staff, Police and other departments can handle these crowds,” noting the City has handled Art Basel, the Food and Wine Festival, and Gay Pride very successfully. “Well planned, well-themed can work,” he said.
Mayor Dan Gelber complimented the organizers on their professionalism. “You obviously know what you’re doing and I don’t think you’re sort of opportunistic trying to do things in a duplicitous way. I really ascribe pretty good intentions, very good intentions.”
That said, Gelber added, “I do think that we have 'hold our breath' moments in this city. I know Spring Break a couple weeks ago was a ‘hold your breath moment’ for this city … We were too close to not being able to control it.“
“When we get over capacity it becomes problematic for us,” he said. “So, for me, the idea of turning over something that could become pretty massive, 30-40-50,000 people, is something that before I give anything close to a green light, I better know every detail.”
“Taking on one of these festivals is a really big deal for our city. It is an imposition on our residents,” Gelber said. “Our residents understand that they live on Miami Beach and many of them like the elements that we bring here. They go to Art Basel. They go to Food and Wine, and many of them have emailed me to say they want to go hear some great music on the beach. That said, we have to be most concerned about how we do this. And although Commissioner Arriola is correct that you shouldn’t have a blanket of fear in your decision making, at the end of the day I don’t know if I had to say right now we have figured out how to do these high capacity weekends perfectly. I think we are still toggling Memorial Day. And a lot of us don’t know what’s going to happen this Memorial Day. We’re trying to program it rather than just leave it out there hoping that our programming will control it a little more than no programming. We may be wrong. So, for me, the issue is the details of the proposal.”
“This is a big deal for our city and I have concerns,” Gelber concluded.
Commissioner Michael Góngora said, “I’m not afraid that this festival cannot be done successfully ... my concern is the type of programming that it would be and the type of people it would attract.”
He, too, expressed concerns with the November date. “With 52 weeks in a year in Miami Beach, I think that if the will of the Commission is there you could identify an appropriate weekend, an appropriate safety plan, an appropriate cleanup plan, in an appropriate manner to make sure that the residents needs are met … I understand Mr. Del Vecchio’s concerns. People are afraid. We’ve had some bad experiences quite recently with spring break so those are still very fresh in our minds and our residents have lived through some unpleasant weekends especially those that live near the entertainment district.”
Commissioner John Alemán said “As a gut reaction, I believe that most of our residents would like for less people to come here and for there to be fewer events, not the reverse. At the same time, they do recognize that we are a tourism based economy … and they themselves enjoy, as the Mayor, said Art Basel and the South Beach Food and Wine Festival, the Yacht Show and some of these things that add to their lives and the experience of living here. I guess the question we all have is your event one of those or not? I’m not a hard no on this.”
Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez said, “I understand why people are upset. People don’t understand when they come to these concerts, the beach becomes a construction site for weeks, and it gets taken over and the impact on the city really is high impact in terms of parking.”
“People trash the beach,” she continued. “I saw it at [Gay] Pride this past weekend. It was great but when it was all over and done, the beach was trashed so I can understand why residents are concerned.”
“That said, I’ve gotten a lot of positive input from the community,” Ronsen Gonzalez added. “So the way I’m looking at it is if you’ve got all this great programming and you are going to bring a family-oriented event – we have a balance between residents and tourism. If it’s something that residents actually want to go to and it benefits tourism at the same time. I would try it one year. What’s the harm of trying it for one year?”
She did urge the organizers to look again at their proposed dates to ensure they are planning for what is normally a low impact weekend.
Commissioner Mark Samuelian, who often focuses on the economic impact of items to the City, said this request “is a tough one with a balance of our critical issue of tourism and hospitality as well as residents’ quality of life.” When asked about the economic impact, Sybesma responded, “An event like this could be expected to bring in $30 million in direct and indirect economic impact.” Samuelian said he needed to be convinced further on the economic impact.
Commissioner Micky Steinberg said, “When it comes down to these festivals, other cities do these to generate tourism in a slow period … We have high impact weekends and we have high impact months and it’s almost become where we have no off season which is a good thing and a bad thing.”
Speaking to the organizers, she said, “Well the truth is, you guys are the real deal. If you guys do this, we are going to have hundreds of thousands of people. It will be possibly the most successful festival because you are the real deal but that’s also the concern. Because you are so good at what you do, we are going to have that impact so we really need to weigh this very, very carefully.”
She also said she didn’t think November is right, nor are January and December. “You have to come back with more … we need to make sure that staff, Fire, Code, Police, Sanitation, are all on the same page. We also need to understand the traffic impacts and we need to understand the time of year” which she said is critical. “I don’t want to take a high impact month and further exasperate it.”
As the Commission prepared to vote to direct the City Administration to continue to work with the organizers on their proposal, Gelber said he was “probably going to be a no. I’m very concerned about it until I see a model that I say is terrific. I’m sort of not there yet … we have so many of these high impact weekends.” He noted one of the issues with finding a date in a lower impact month is Miami Beach’s turtle nesting season which runs from April 1 through early November.
The vote was 5-2 in favor of further exploration with Steinberg and Gelber voting no.
After the vote, Sybesma told RE:MiamiBeach via email, “We had a productive discussion that now leads to comprehensive planning with City directors, staff and services. We are pleased to address the Mayor’s and Commissioner's input, and will work closely with City Administration to achieve best-practice plans and to determine the best timing on the calendar for the Miami Beach Pop Festival.”
Photo: Shutterstock

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