The Miami Herald

Jungle Island plans to meet its challenges

Almost 20 years ago, when I was presented with the opportunity to relocate Parrot Jungle to Watson Island, it was difficult for me to envision the lush, tropical setting I knew was needed. But, relocating to the heart of Miami would bring the park closer to thousands more school kids, local families, the business community and the tourists who vacation on Miami Beach.

Today’s Jungle Island has seen its annual attendance increase 73 percent over the previous location, and total yearly revenue has leapt 350 percent over the old park’s revenue. The old park had 35 employees; Jungle Island employs more than 600. The old park hosted 50 events a year; Jungle Island hosts more than 1,300 events, many that have collectively raised tens of millions of dollars for charities. Jungle Island has 25,000 annual-pass holders and offers free admission to military personnel, police officers, school teachers, firefighters and EMTs. Plus, Jungle Island donates more than $600,000 worth of tickets a year to help raise money for charities.

There have been challenges. From 9/11, hurricanes, the great recession and the tunnel project, we have faced many headwinds in our diligent attempts to meet attendance and revenue figures we were advised would be achievable. The structure of the $25 million HUD construction loan has been a major hurdle. Since the park’s opening, we have worked closely with Miami and Miami-Dade County to restructure the debt to meet obligations responsibly. To date we have paid:

•  $11.3 million in first mortgage debt repayment that the city and county would have had to pay the lender

•  More than $8 million in sales taxes

•  $5.5 million in property taxes to the city, county, state and public school district

•  $3.6 million in rent to Miami

•  $750,000 in interest payments on the HUD loan

•  $456,000 in parking surcharges to Miami

Most important, we have paid more than $44 million in employee salaries and benefits and hired a myriad of people who live in the Enterprise Zone, the Empowerment Zone and come from middle- and low-income families.

There have been baseless insinuations that I am personally funneling money out of this project. To begin with, my partner and I have personally invested $21.8 million into the park, verified by independent auditors. Because I am often working in the park with animals, I am required to take a salary so I can be covered by worker’s compensation. My salary amounts to just $10,000 a year.

This is a labor of love. I remember when my parents first took me to the old park in 1952. It inspired me to become a veterinarian. While this project has proved more challenging than any other venture, knowing that I have helped others develop a deeper appreciation for animals, plants and nature makes it all worthwhile.

I am grateful for the opportunities this community has afforded me, and I work hard to give back. It is my hope that we can achieve a viable solution with Miami and Miami-Dade County so that Jungle Island can continue to serve a place we all proudly call home.

Bern Levine, owner, Jungle Island, Miami

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