Miami Beach is trying to reshape Memorial Day weekend 2018. Will it work?

Crowds gather to watch the Memorial Day Weekend air show at Miami Beach on Saturday, May 27, 2017.Matias J. Ocner

Miami Beach has big plans for Memorial Day weekend this year as the city attempts to reshape a holiday weekend that typically draws tens of thousands of young people for the loosely affiliated hip hop concerts and parties known as Urban Beach Week.

The city plans to spend $250,000 on a concert and another $100,000 on a packed cultural events calendar, which is still being finalized, that will likely include a gospel performance, a celebrity basketball game, a movie screening and a barbecue contest. That’s in addition to hosting a military-themed Air and Sea Show for a second year.

In an unusual move, Miami Beach has also authorized up to a dozen special event permits for area hotels in the hopes that they will host smaller cultural events like book readings and fashion shows to draw revelers to other areas of South Beach. The city typically doesn’t issue special event permits for hotels on Memorial Day weekend because the crowd is already so large.

“We want a cultural explosion,” said Ruban Roberts, the NAACP’s representative on a panel that is helping plan Miami Beach’s festivities. “What we don’t want to do is exclude anyone.”

The city-sponsored events are part of an effort to give Memorial Day weekend a new identity on Miami Beach following a deadly shooting that scarred an otherwise peaceful holiday weekend last year.

Urban Beach Week has long sparked controversy both because of security concerns and because the event, which draws primarily young, African-American visitors, has seen a heightened police presence and increased crowd-control measures that have been criticized by civil liberties groups.

After last year’s shooting, tensions surrounding the event came to a head when then-Commissioner Michael Grieco called for an end to Urban Beach Week and Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez told the city manager in an email that “We need to give the cops back their bullets” and remove their body cameras.

Carl Juste
Beach goers enjoy the view as Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters perform at the air and sea show on Miami Beach on Sunday, May 28, 2017.

The comments prompted an outcry from the NAACP, whose local leaders felt that trying to end the festivities would unfairly single out African-American visitors. In response, the city formed a panel with African-American community leaders and a representative from the hotel industry to discuss the weekend and come up with events that could provide an alternative to drinking and club-hopping.

“None of us, I think, like to see just this massive street party,” Commissioner Ricky Arriola, the panel chair, said during the group’s meeting on Thursday afternoon. “We don’t like it during Spring Break and we don’t like it during Memorial Day weekend so we’re going to do things that people want to do to kick off the summer.”

Arriola said he envisions turning Miami Beach into a national destination for the holiday weekend and making it “the biggest premier event in the country” for African-Americans in addition to attracting other visitors.

But as with any major event on the beach, the massive crowds during Memorial Day weekend can be a challenge. The city hopes that offering a variety of events throughout South Beach, including at hotels, will spread the partygoers throughout the area to avoid crowd control issues like the ones that prompted police to temporarily shut down eastbound lanes on the MacArthur Causeway during Spring Break.

“Few cities in the world face the challenge of too many visitors,” said Mayor Dan Gelber. “Our hope is that by providing programming we control, we will diminish aspects of the weekend that previously have been difficult to control.”

Miami Beach police plan to continue the same traffic plan used in previous years, implement residential access restrictions and use license plate readers to ensure safety, said spokesman Ernesto Rodriguez.

Organizers also hope to launch a national marketing campaign to advertise a broader vision of the weekend beyond the hip hop concerts and parties and to make sure visitors know the city’s rules ahead of time. The Memorial Day panel is asking the City Commission to authorize funding for the campaign at its upcoming April 11 meeting.

In addition, the city is hosting a public event to discuss plans for Memorial Day weekend on April 18 at 6 p.m. at The Betsy Hotel.