When the owners of the aviary attraction known as Parrot Jungle made a bid for prime, city-owned land on Watson Island, they came to the Miami City Commission with a list of promises:
Three-quarters of a million annual visitors. At least $400,000 in annual revenue for Miamis coffers. Six hundred new jobs.
Fifteen years later, the only promise kept was the number of new jobs.
Jungle Island, as the attraction is now called, hasnt paid rent to Miami in three years. Instead, it has sucked public money from Miami and Miami-Dade County, which have floated the park more than $26 million to cover rent, back taxes and payments on a loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Now, with Jungle Island threatening to default on the 20-year federal loan on which theres still $15 million to pay the park wants the city to double down.
Jungle Island officials say an unnamed investor has offered to build a hotel, restaurants and shops on Watson Island but only if the city extends the parks lease for an additional 50 years and gives it 13 more acres of waterfront land on Biscayne Bay. This time, they say, the project is sure to make money for the city.
Unfortunately, this is a story of broken promises, Mayor Tomás Regalado said.
The City Commission was supposed to take up Jungle Islands request last week, but deferred the discussion to allow for more negotiations.
There is pressure to move swiftly: A $2 million payment on the federal loan is due in August. Park owner Bern Levine says Jungle Island cant make the payment, leaving Miami and Miami-Dade County to make the payment once again, as they have for years as guarantors of the loan.
City administrators have made their position clear: I want the entire $2 million paid [by Jungle Island], no strings attached, City Manager Johnny Martinez said.
There has been another roadblock. Jungle Island has asked the city and the county to forgive its entire $26 million debt in exchange for a share of the parks profits moving forward.
City officials are willing to consider the proposal, but only if they receive a portion of the attractions revenues instead.
Commission Chairman Francis Suarez said he is leery of compounding one bad deal with another. But he sees the potential of an expanded Jungle Island and a proposed revenue-sharing arrangement with the city.
In the past, the city has been giving, Suarez said. In this case, the city will be getting.
Commissioner Willy Gort said he is skeptical.
I have to be convinced that their plan can actually be accomplished, he said.
Regalado, who sat on the City Commission when many of the previous Jungle Island deals were brokered, says its all déjà vu.
Fifteen years ago, Levine told the city that Jungle Island would attract 750,000 annual visitors after its move from Pinecrest to 18 acres on Watson Island. He envisioned tourists streaming in from the nearby Port of Miami and Miami-Dades landlocked southwestern suburbs.
Attendance the first year was closer to 450,000. For a range of reasons, through economic booms and busts, the number has remained constant to this day.
At first, the park followed through with annual rent payments to the city. But it struggled to pay down the federal $25 million loan it took out to finance its move to Watson Island. Miami has so far covered about $13 million in principal and interest, city records show.