Jungle Island employs hundreds fewer workers than required under the terms of a $25 million federal loan, and only a fraction of them are low- and middle-income employees despite a separate loan pledge made by the aviary attraction.
The findings, part of a stinging draft audit by the park’s landlord, the city of Miami, are another black eye for Jungle Island, which made headlines last summer when its owners said they could not afford a $2 million payment due on the federal loan.
Miami auditors found that Jungle Island has only 426 full-time employees — a far cry from the 714 required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Federal standards require that loan recipients create at least one full-time post for every $35,000 they receive, in a bid to spur urban development.
The aviary park also fell short on a promise to award more than half of all jobs to low- and middle-income workers, according to the audit. Jungle Island officials told Miami that 38 percent of park positions were held by workers who live in low- and middle-class neighborhoods. Auditors found the figure to be closer to 4 percent.
Park owner Bern Levine said he had not yet seen the city audit, but contested its findings.
“We have met and exceeded [the requirements],” Levine said, arguing that the park is actually responsible for creating about 1,200 jobs, including positions at nearby hotels and work for wedding photographers on the grounds. “Some are indirect jobs, but they are directly related to the Jungle.”
Levine also disputed the auditors’ figure that only 4 percent of Jungle Island jobs are held by workers who live in low- and middle-class neighborhoods.
“Our employees are definitely from low- to moderate income areas,” he said.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, convinced that Jungle Island is on shaky financial footing, said he wasn’t surprised by the auditors’ concerns.
When the $2 million loan payment came due over the summer, park officials said a secret investor was willing to foot the bill, but only if the city commission would approve a public referendum to expand the park and extend its lease. After commissioners said no, Jungle Island ultimately ponied up the money and put its expansion plans on hold.
“That’s why we were so firm when they asked for the extension and the referendum,” Regalado said. “We couldn’t keep asking voters to continue betting on a place that’s losing and that has so many serious problems. And that was before knowing they weren’t meeting all those requirements.”
The auditors also noted that the park’s independent accountant had “expressed doubts of its ability to continue.”
Jungle Island has been in a financial morass since moving from Pinecrest to city-owned land on Watson Island nearly 15 years ago. The number of annual visitors has never quite hit the 750,000 mark that was forecast, leaving Jungle Island unable to pay down the federal loan that financed its move.
As guarantors of the loan, Miami and Miami-Dade County have shelled out more than $26 million in principal and interest. But even that hasn’t been enough to keep the park afloat.
In 2009, the city loaned Jungle Island $800,000 — and agreed to defer $1.9 million in rent payments. That was the deal that also required Jungle Island to award half of all park jobs to low- and middle-income workers.