Jungle Island, which charmed its way onto some prime city-owned waterfront property more than a decade ago, then failed to perform as promised, has put on hold its ridiculously tone-deaf request for even more city land on which to expand and a five-decade lease extension.
Maybe the owners have seen the folly of this plan. Plus, it saves the city the trouble of having to respond with an unequivocal “No way!” At least that is what city leaders, taxpayers’ stewards of city land, should have been planning to say.
But the issue, originally scheduled for discussion at Thursday’s City Commission meeting, has been deferred, according to Jungle Island staff.
This gives everyone time to step back, take a deep breath and figure out the best course for the city to take in dealing with this troubled tourist attraction. And make no mistake, the city, which has ponied up millions of dollars to keep the delinquent Jungle Island afloat, must be in the driver’s seat here.
How did it all reach this sorry point?
In the mid ’90s, when the attraction was called Parrot Jungle — beloved by generations of South Floridians — it made a pitch to move from its lush location in Pinecrest to Watson Island. Parrot Jungle’s owners promised, if not exactly the moon, then something pretty close: 750,000 visitors annually, $400,000 in annual lease payments and the creation of 600 jobs. What’s not to like?
Because Parrot Jungle sought to lease waterfront property, the proposal had to go to the voters as per Miami’s charter. Voters went for it. Even The Miami Herald swooned: “Parrot Jungle is an exemplary rescuer for fallow Watson Island.”
A little context is in order: Yes, Parrot Jungle wanted to expand, and couldn’t at its location to the south. But also, Watson Island, for all its beauty, had become a haven for homeless squatters and feral cats. It was costing the city a bundle to try to stave off further deterioration.
Something had to be done, and Parrot Jungle’s timing was ideal.
Now Parrot Jungle, renamed Jungle Island, has become the attraction that has failed to deliver the visitors or revenue it promised, though it created hundreds of jobs. But it has failed to pay rent to the city of Miami for the past three years. Public funds from Miami and Miami-Dade County have kept the thing from sinking — more than $26 million for rent, back taxes and payments on a loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. There’s another HUD payment due in August, and default is a distinct possibility.
Jungle Island’s nervy solution: Ask the city to extend the lease for 50 years, give it 13 more acres of waterfront land and a secret savior will swoop in and build a hotel complex of restaurants and shops on the island. And then just watch, the tourists and revenue pour in.
The swooning is over.
Secret investors and a bailout are unacceptable solutions in a city that has been careless with its waterfront property (Miami Marine Stadium, anyone?). Jungle Island has brought in just 450,000 visitors a year; it can’t make its lease payments. It will not grow its way out of its troubles, nor should the city allow it to.
If the attraction has a solid, common-sense plan to make itself whole, the city should hear owners out. However, Watson Island remains the site of other dreams, like that high-end marina complex, that never came to fruition.
If the city has to pursue foreclosure proceedings to regain control of the land, so be it.
Jungle Island has cost taxpayers enough.