The Miami Herald

Cash-strapped Jungle Island falls short in bid for expansion on Miami’s Watson Island

After asking the city of Miami to forgive its debts and expand its footprint on Watson Island, Jungle Island is standing down.

On Wednesday, the tourist attraction said it will cough up a pending $2 million loan payment and is ending negotiations with the city — for now, anyway.

“Jungle Island has made the decision to put its expansion plans on hold and reconsider our options for the future at this time,” park officials wrote in a statement.

Commission Vice Chairman Marc Sarnoff said the aviary attraction is simply reading the tea leaves.

“They see there is no stomach for any further concessions,” he said.

In the statement, Jungle Island officials said they plan to “meet obligations,” the most pressing of which is the $2 million payment on a federal loan due in August.

Last month, owner Bern Levine had said the cash-strapped park couldn’t afford the payment, but that an unnamed investor would cut the check if Jungle Island got an additional 13.45 acres of waterfront property to add a hotel, restaurants and retail. Otherwise, the city and the county would have been on the hook as the loan’s guarantors.

But city officials played hardball. Mayor Tomás Regalado balked at Levine’s initial suggestion that the city make the August loan payment. Instead, he insisted that Jungle Island pony up the funds.

Under the best of circumstances, the struggling business’ proposal was far from popular.

The iconic zoological park and banquet hall has been bleeding money since its 1997 move from Pinecrest to Watson Island, and has failed to follow through on a number of promises to city officials. All told, Jungle Island owes more than $26 million to the city and county, which have made most of the payments on the federal loan. The city also loaned the business $800,000 to help it pay back taxes in 2009.

In addition, the park has not been able to pay rent on its city-owned property in more than three years.

In interviews with The Miami Herald, Regalado called Jungle Island “a bad deal” and “a story of broken promises.”

Levine said his latest proposal would take taxpayers off the hook because the outside investor would pay off the $15 million remaining on the federal loan. Levine was also asking Miami and Miami-Dade County to forgive the attraction’s debt in exchange for a portion of profits moving forward.

The park owner promised his new investor would generate profits by deploying a dramatically different business plan.

But city commissioners have been skeptical. And despite repeated requests, Levine decline to name the investor or elaborate on plans for the new-and-improved Jungle Island.

The attraction and the city spent weeks trying to reach a deal. Jungle Island exerted significant pressure on the city, saying commissioners needed to decide the matter this month to give voters a chance to weigh in on a ballot question in November.

In the end, the city stood firm — and the business blinked.

“There were too many unknowns,” City Manager Johnny Martinez said.

Jungle Island lobbyist Brian May said Levine and his business partner Ron Krongold are doing “their very best” to make the August payment.

“They are working on it night and day,” May said.

He said Jungle Island officials will come back to the city when they have more definitive plans for the park’s future.

Commissioner Willy Gort said Jungle Island made a smart move.

“This gives them more time to come up with a plan and maybe become profitable,” he said.

Gort said he had little sympathy for the park. “Past administrations had given them so many breaks,” he said.

Martinez, the city manager, has concerns about Jungle Island’s ability to make the upcoming payment. But he still sees promise in the park.

“We want them to stay. We want them to be an attraction,” he said. “We also want them to live up to the terms of their lease.”




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