Seventeen years ago, when honchos behind the historic old tourist attraction then known as Parrot Jungle were lobbying Miami for approval of that oh-so-sweet deal on Watson Island, they showed up in jungle garb at City Hall with parrots, cockatoos, macaws and a loveable chimpanzee named Noel.
Who could say no to Noel?
They were back before the city commission again on Tuesday, trying to extort an even more favorable agreement. This time they brought their very own trained lobbyist. Apparently, the park’s two warthogs were otherwise engaged.
Jungle Island, which owes the city some $26 million and is teetering toward default on a federal loan underwritten by the city and Miami-Dade County, did what any deadbeat renter would do: demand that the city tack another 50 years onto the original 60-year lease and give the park control of an even larger chunk of Watson Island.
Jungle Island claims that more land and a longer lease are necessary to bring in a big-money investor with the heft to build a hotel and restaurants and lots of touristy shops to gussy up the park. Meanwhile, city commissioners were warned that if they say no, they could forget about Jungle Island making that $2 million federal loan payment due in August.
It was, of course, an utterly outrageous demand, tantamount to extortion, but the city commissioners were in about as advantageous a negotiating position as Watson the hapless gibbon, who was chased around Jungle Island two years ago by an escaped 500-pound tiger named Mahesh. If the commissioners refuse, the city will find itself with most of the $15 million debt the park still owes the feds (the city guaranteed 80 percent of the FHA loan, the county 20 percent) and ownership of a money-losing 18.6 acre botanical park with 600 employees, an assortment of exotic birds, snakes, alligators, pigs, goats, apes, those two warthogs and one very disappointed lobbyist.
“I can’t believe the city would approve this,” said Robert Aldereguia, of the Miami Outboard Club, one of the bayside marinas that would be partially gobbled up by an expanded park. “Not just as someone from the boat club. Just as an ordinary citizen, I think this is just a bad deal.”
I spent $35.26 getting into the place on Tuesday, plus another $8 to park. So pricey for a middling tourist attraction that I was worried that the folks who approve reimbursements at the Herald might think that I was padding my expenses. But I must say, those two warthogs, bumping heads like local pols, put on a nice show.
Approval of this deal, of course, means an even more profound public investment in an expanded version of a very unsuccessful business plan. But the law of the jungle apparently doesn’t apply to Jungle Island.
In 1995 Miami voters approved a referendum, 4,392 to 4,250, to give over the north end of Watson Island to owners of the old Parrot Jungle. Voters were told the city was guaranteed a minimum of $200,000 a year from the deal. Critics railed that this was far less rent than the Seaquarium or Bayside paid for even larger tracts of public-owned waterfront property.
Joe Carollo, campaigning for a city commission seat in 1995, called the deal “outrageous. It’s a giveaway.” Of course, Carollo based his characterization on the assumption — wildly optimistic as it turned out — that Jungle Island would, at least, come up with the $200,000 in annual lease payments and make the payments on its city-and-county-backed federal loan.
Another commission candidate in 1995, a retiree named Manuel Gonzalez-Goenaga, also opposed the Watson Island project. “I would be more amenable to moving Monkey Jungle to City Hall, so they continue the monkey business with monkeys, not human beings.”
If the city needs to bring in someone to negotiate new terms with Jungle Island, Manuel Gonzalez-Goenaga, perhaps in jungle garb, would be the man for the job.