By Rob Wile
From Miami Herald
Miami is about to play host to what may be the largest cryptocurrency conference the world has ever seen.
Thanks to a confluence of calendar, COVID-19, and Miami’s soaring reputation as a tech hub, organizers are expecting as many as 50,000 to descend on the county for Bitcoin 2021. Headliners include Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, legendary pro skater Tony Hawk and a cavalcade of crypto gurus. Kicking off Thursday, the event is already sold out.
For Miami, the conference may also signal its emergence as a center for crypto and blockchain technology. As Axios and LinkedIn recently reported, Miami has experienced faster growth in its tech workforce in the past year than any other major metro (though the absolute size of that workforce remains small). Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has also been at the forefront of pushing Miami as a crypto hub, announcing initiatives to turn some parts of the city’s finances over to Bitcoin.
Yet some also believe that both crypto and Miami are experiencing coincident hype cycles—ones that may yet pay off, but which nevertheless likely carry some froth.
“I think it is real,” said Adam B. Levine, a managing editor at online crypto publication CoinDesk, of Miami’s emerging profile. “On the other hand, the Miami thing is happening not only because of its party status, but simply because you guys are open compared to other places that are still locked down.”
Crypto, too, is also experiencing a short-term bull run that may already be winding down. After rising to more than $60,000 in April, the price of a single Bitcoin has now sunk below $40,000.
“Crypto goes through this every couple of years,” Levine said. “There are signs this cycle may be different—but it’s not so different because you have a lot of opportunities coming out of the woodwork, and while some of those are good, a lot are bad and turn out to be scams.”
“And in the past, Miami has been associated with that, too,” he added.
Waiting on Disruption
Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and their underlying technology, the blockchain, may still mystify many. The key, according to Daniel Stabile, a Miami-based partner at law firm Shutts and Bowen, is that blockchain removes the need for a trusted third party to carry out transactions.
For someone in Miami, that could mean using Bitcoin as a means for transferring funds to someone in Latin America at a fraction of the cost compared with a traditional provider.
But while crypto remittances have taken off elsewhere, they remain a tiny percentage of inter-American remittance volumes. Stabile acknowledged that consumer-facing or consumer-accessible use cases of the Blockchain remain limited, for now.
“In the future, I think that blockchain technology will play an increasingly important role in our lives—maybe not in the foreground but in the background,” Stabile said.
For years, blockchain has been talked about as a disruptive force in financial services and supply chains. Even art, which is seeing a proliferation of digital works authenticated with non-fungible tokens or NFTs.
But despite much discussion, there’s been no widespread shift to digital currencies, let alone blockchain technologies. That still lies in the future, Stabile said.
“We’ll have to wait and see what the dominant use cases are in five, 10, 15 years,” Stabile said, “but I’m very confident that blockchain technology will feature increasingly prominently in our everyday lives as time goes on.”
Even before Miami’s current tech moment, there was already a fledgling crypto community here among those buying into the promise of cryptocurrency. In 2014—an eon ago in Bitcoin years—the city served as the launch point for Ethereum, today the second-largest cryptocurrency after Bitcoin.
“Miami’s long been a hotspot for crypto developers and investors, so for this conference to be here only makes sense,” said Refresh Miami director Brian Breslin.
One of those is Jorge Cortes. In 2018, he and several other techies helped launch the Blockchain Center in downtown Miami to advance cryptocurrency causes and adoption. The pandemic forced its closure, but its spirit is being carried on through Cortes’ newest venture, Bit Basel. It’s an arts-focused group launched amid the mania for NFTs, which now represent a multibillion-dollar market for artists, creators, traders and collectors.
Among other services, Bit Basel provides crypto wallets to NFT users. The group is also an official local partner of this week’s conference, and will be creating a giant mural in Wynwood to support local artists.
Cortes is emphatic about the conference’s significance.
“It’s the biggest tech event ever to happen in South Florida,” he said.
For now, it is players like Cortes that represent the heart of Miami’s crypto community. CoinDesk’s Levine says that at the moment, he is not aware of any major crypto businesses that plan to be based out of Miami—though many now say they maintain a digital-first profile.
Instead, it may be mostly individuals that continue to comprise Miami’s crypto scene.
“I’m not convinced we’re going to see much in the way of migration for companies,” Levine said. “But to the extent that people are moving, Miami has a lot going for it that people in this space are interested in.”
Originally slated for Los Angeles, Bitcoin 2021 organizers announced they would be moving the conference to Miami in March amid concerns about California’s pandemic restrictions—and to capitalize on the city’s gathering momentum in the tech industry.
John Riggins, international operations head for conference organizer BTC Media, said Mayor Suarez immediately jumped on the idea of playing host and was able to convince developer Moishe Mana to host it at his Mana Wynwood space.
“The reception to the move was immediately great from the U.S. and around the world—we started selling tickets like hotcakes,” Riggins said. “Everyone was excited about having the opportunity to do something in person again.”
As Suarez and the conference organizers began corresponding about the idea to move the conference to Miami, Suarez soon made his own announcement about turning more of the city’s finances over to crypto: In February, the city agreed to explore allowing residents to pay municipal fees with Bitcoin and city employees to receive all or part of their salaries in it.
The Miami Herald reported in April that administrators are still studying the concept, along with the feasibility of investing some of the city’s treasury in cryptocurrency. An April 20 draft memo from the city attorney’s office outlines a way the city can hire a vendor, through competitive bidding, to handle cryptocurrency transactions with the public and employees.
Already, Miami is dotted with Bitcoin ATMs put there by multiple vendors including Bitcoin of America.
“Mayor Suarez kicked it off,” said Bitcoin of America CEO Sonny Meraban. “My schedule is being filled with other mayors as well, but going back, what he did is genius because every government is going to have to become crypto-friendly.”
Besides various talks, Bitcoin 2021 is likely to simply be a party celebrating the eye-popping fortunes cryptocurrency has minted. Special events for so-called crypto “whales”—millionaires and billionaires—are slated, including a performance by DJ Diplo and an auction that includes a meet-and-greet with skateboarder Hawk. Even for non-whales, satellite events around the city include a host of happy hours, a nighttime cruise, and pop-up art exhibitions.
In one very specific instance, the rise of the whales is already paying dividends for Miami. Just as the conference was announcing its arrival, the city further solidified its status as a crypto center when the Miami Herald confirmed that Sam Bankman-Fried, a Bitcoin billionaire, and his crypto group FTX had purchased the successor naming rights to American AirlinesArena, home of the Miami Heat, in a $135 million deal.
“I’m looking at what role I can be playing in the world,” Bankman-Fried told CoinDesk upon the announcement. “Frankly, I hope we did a lot of good with some of the money that’s going to be spent there on this, and help a lot of residents in the county.”
Maria Derchi Russo, executive director of local tech group Refresh Miami, said she is already aware of some big announcements being prepped for the conference—announcements that could make Miami a center for crypto events.
“It’s exciting to see next week’s Bitcoin 2021 conference take place right here in our backyard,” she said in an email. “It serves as further validation of the incredible energy and enthusiasm around Miami’s tech and innovation sector and the welcoming nature of our city.”
Miami’s status as a low-tax, business-friendly, international city is drawing many to a city that, because of other long-standing cultural connotations, may have been off the radar. For Stabile, the conference—whatever else may be true of it—is a sign of the city’s growing significance in the tech world.
“I think it’s a very big deal,” Stabile said. “It’s a signifier of the fact that the industry is recognizing Miami as an epicenter for blockchain technology.”
While the city has hosted other blockchain-related conferences in past, he said, “the fact that (Bitcoin 2021) is here is giving the industry imprimatur that Miami is being taken more seriously in the space.”
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