Reporting David Sutta
MIAMI (CBS4) — Since Jungle Island opened its new doors on Watson Island nine years ago thousands have posed with parrots, alligators and other wonderfully wild creatures. The renewed attraction is a piece of South Florida history, but at Miami City Hall Tuesday, the owner hinted they may soon be history if things don’t change.
“In order for it to be sustainable going forward, the project has to be further developed as more of a destination than as a regional attraction,” said Jungle Island’s Brian Mays.
As Jungle Island employees packed the room, the company blamed a sour economy and port tunnel project for poor park attendance.
The attraction has struggled over the years, taking loans and deferring rent payments to get by.
“I think they are very close. Very close. I think they’ll likely default in August,” said Commissioner Marc Sarnoff.
What happens next is unclear.
Miami could end up with its very own jungle. Jungle Island is hoping not to get there, and presented a plan Tuesday to save the project by doubling the parks lease to 99-years and doubling the park’s footprint adding a hotel and more attractions.
“This is something that helps Miami to be a world class city,” animal activist Alan Rigerman told the commission.
Animal rights activists disagreed and said they thought Parrot Jungle did a poor job of caring for animals and this would only make matters worse.
Animal rights issues aside. opinion is split on the plan.
The Miami Yacht Club, a Watson island tenant since the 40’s, would lose its property in the proposal, along with the nearby gardens, and public boat ramp.
“It will cut off access. It will shut down our programs,” according to Commodore Donita Leavitt. Leavitt told commissioners this was the first she had seen of the plan to develop their site.
If commissioners agree to the plan, an investor would pay off Jungle Islands and the city’s $32 million in debt. The city would then share in profits from the property.
“It’s a wonderful deal. We go from 600 employees to 1500 or 2000. We go from property taxes of about $500,000 a year to $3 million dollars a year,” explained Jungle Island owner Bern Levine after the meeting.
Looking at past promises commissioners though were very skeptical.
“In a nutshell, this is like a marriage that is on the rocks,” Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones said. “And it’s been on the rocks for a very long time. Now it’s up to us to make a decision or evaluate whether this marriage can work.”
While there is a lot still to be worked out, Miami Commissioners have until the end of July to figure out what they are going to do. If they accept this plan it will go to voters in November.
Jungle Island began as Parrot Jungle back in 1936 and became known for its colorful array of exotic birds. In those days, the attraction was located in Pinecrest. After the move to Watson Island, the park was renamed in 2007.
In order to move to the larger, more centrally located location, Jungle Island secured a $25 million loan from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Both the city and the county agreed to serve as guarantors. The park was able to defer payments on the HUD loan until this year. It also got the city to agree to amend their 60 lease so that rent payments could also be deferred.