The notion of doing something with the zoo properties, a part of the old Richmond Naval Air Station that was turned over to the county by the federal government, dates back to Hurricane Andrew, which devastated South Miami-Dade in 1992. It also trashed the zoo, which saw annual attendance plunge from around 1 million to about one-third of that.
Moss, who formulated a plan to guide the reconstruction of South Miami-Dade, seized on developing the rest of the zoo properties, positioned right off Florida Turnpike’s between Miami and the Keys, as a tourism destination. That, Moss said, could provide an economic base for the area, a former agricultural center overtaken by suburban sprawl but with few major employers and with pockets of deep poverty, especially along U.S. 1.
Zoo attendance has since largely recovered, thanks in part to a significant sprucing up and some major new attractions, Kardys said. The zoo is now embarking on its newest expansion, a $40 million Florida Exhibit featuring native wildlife like saltwater crocodiles and black bears, and an Everglades boat ride. The zoo is also getting a striking new entrance.
But Kardys said zoo attendance has plateaued and probably maxed out, while the rail museum, despite some impressive historic train cars and engines, receives little attention.
Moss said a comprehensive plan for an expanded park and resort would leverage the already-healthy zoo attendance, raise the profile of the rail museum and draw tourists from South America and beyond. The train museum has a working rail spur that connects to an existing railway, and could provide rides through the agricultural Redland, he said.
“There is a tremendous potential to do a lot of exciting things at that location,” Moss said. “It will give people another reason to come to Miami-Dade and spend a couple more days with us.”
Just how big the new resort and theme park would be will depend on the developers’ ambitions. In addition to about 120 acres of vacant land and zoo parking lots, the county is making available a 39-acre parcel that was once the site of housing for the U.S. Coast Guard base adjacent to the zoo. The county bought the housing tract from the Coast Guard and turned it over to its public housing agency, which is using it temporarily.
The Coast Guard has said it is also willing to consider selling the rest of its base, about 250 acres that contain vacant land, a 70-acre pineland, an administration building and a communications facility, the county said. The developer would have to deal separately with the Coast Guard, which could ask for replacement facilities as part of a deal, bid documents state.
A key piece of any deal, Moss said, is that it be mostly financed by the private developer.
“They have to show they have the wherewithal to do this,” he said.