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Jungle Island Faces Uncertain Financial Future

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WATSON ISLAND (CBS4) -It is a jungle out there, especially in the business world. A day after reintroducing its prize attraction, Jungle Island is facing questions about whether it can carve a sustainable financial path for the future.

A quick glance on Thursday would not lead you to think there are problems. Visitors flocked to Jungle Island, which sits between Miami and Miami Beach on Watson Island.  Mahesh, the big tiger, is home along with Vulcan, the liger. That is a cross between a lion and a tiger. They’d been gone for months after Mahesh scaled his 12 foot high fence to chase a gibbon. The fence is 20-plus feet high now. One visitor told CBS4’s Michael Williams, “It is nice, children friendly, never too many people.”

That last part is the problem. Too few visitors are showing up. Jungle Island will attract more than 300,000 visitors this year but that is a far cry from the high hopes when it opened in 2003 on Watson Island, after leaving its longtime home in Pinecrest.

The rent is always paid but a multi-million dollar loan is largely financed—for now—by the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County. Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff said, “It has always been the white elephant for the city of Miami and it is straining our resources unfairly for the city and it can’t go on much longer.”

Amidst that polite but clear ultimatum Jungle Island must also contend with a concrete and steel jungle sprouting nearby. Towering cranes mark the start of the big, traffic snarling Port of Miami tunnel project. Jungle Island is offering package deals to attract repeat visitors and says bookings for its ballroom are strong. But the pressure is on.

Jungle Island marketing director Leo Sarmiento said, “I don’t think too many businesses have done well the last couple of years with the economy. We’re happy wit the last three or four months. We have seen an increase each and every month. This month we are up almost 25 percent compared to last year.”

Hope springs eternal but hope is not a business plan. A lot of people will be looking hard at Jungle Island in 2011 to see if it can create a robust blueprint for survival.

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