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Miami Commission divided over proposed Jungle Island expansion

Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones described the situation as a “business deal gone wrong.”

Commission Vice Chairman Marc Sarnoff drew comparisons to the movie 127 Hours, the true story of a rock climber who falls into a crevice and has to sever his arm to survive.

The discussion Tuesday centered on the fate of Jungle Island, the cash-strapped zoological park and banquet hall on Watson Island. The project is deep in debt and unable to pay the $2 million due in August on a federal loan.

That worries Miami and Miami-Dade County, which are on the hook for a combined $40 million should Jungle Island default on the loan and other financial obligations.

The park has enlisted an outside investor to pay off the federal loan, owner Bern Levine has said. But in order for the investor to come through, Levine wants Miami to extend the park’s lease and give it more land. That would enable Jungle Island to redevelop Watson Island into a broader destination for tourists, lobbyist Brian May told commissioners Tuesday.

“We would begin making payments on those past-due amounts as soon as we can get our development plan in place,” May said.

The commission did not vote on the pitch Tuesday, but some members indicated how they might vote in the future. The proposal is likely to come before the commission again next week. Amending Jungle Island’s lease requires a public referendum, and any ballot initiatives must be submitted this summer.

Spence-Jones called the proposal “disrespectful” to the city.

She pointed out that the city has already covered $13.8 million in principal and interest on the park’s $25 million loan from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and deferred rent payments.

“I have always been a supporter of Parrot Jungle,” Spence-Jones said, using the attraction’s former name. “I have some big concerns with the number of times we have covered them. … We have to make a decision when enough is enough.”

Commission Chairman Francis Suarez said the public is wary of Miami commissioners striking deals that appear to support private interests. Deals like the public funding for the Marlins ballpark have taken heavy criticism.

“The city of Miami is not in a position to do things that are all that generous,” Suarez said, noting that city administrators are again projecting a shortfall this year.

But Suarez also expressed concerns about severing ties with the long-standing South Florida attraction.

“I don’t want this to become another Miami Marine Stadium,” he said, referring to the crumbling city property on Virginia Key. “I don’t want this to become another abandoned waterfront property.”

If city officials decline Jungle Island’s proposal, they could foreclose on the property, or possibly find a new tenant.

Said Commissioner Willy Gort: “I would love to see it stay alive.”

Some stakeholders also chimed in at the meeting, which was packed with Jungle Island employees in safari-style garb.

Community activist and animal enthusiast Alan Rigerman spoke on behalf of the park.

“This is something that helps to make Miami a world-class city,” he said. “Can you imagine a destination hotel not for gambling, but for wildlife?”

But members of the Miami Yacht Club, another Watson Island tenant, made the case against an expanded Jungle Island.

“This will consume our location,” Yacht Club Commodore Donita Leavitt said. “It will cut off public access. It will shut down our programs.”

Said May, the park lobbyist: “It was never the intent... for us to try to displace them.”

Levine, the park owner, said he was pleased with the overall discussion.

“We’re hoping that we’re going to prevail,” he said afterward.

Commissioners, however, were more skeptical.

“It’s like a marriage that has been on the rocks and it’s been on the rocks for a very long time,” Spence-Jones said. “Now it is up to us to evaluate and see if this marriage can work.”

Said Suarez: “If it is a bad marriage, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.”