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Former director of San Diego Zoo now Jungle Island president

The former director of the world-renowned San Diego Zoo is taking on troubled Jungle Island, the park announced Thursday.

John Dunlap has been named president of the Watson Island animal-and-garden attraction. His San Diego-based company, Iconic Attractions, will manage all aspects of the operation. Longtime owner Bern Levine will retain oversight.

The change has been in the works for the past year, said Ashley Serrate, Jungle Island’s public relations manager.

"Bern wanted to take Jungle Island to the next level and make it world-class destination...[he] decided that [Dunlap] was best fit for that."

In his quest to improve attendance figures and financial performance, Dunlap plans to create new attractions — some involving water — and improve customer service, retail options and catering cuisine.

“It will be a methodical process over a series of years,” he said. “But you will start seeing changes in the park by the end of this year.”

Since leaving its original Pinecrest location in 1997, Jungle Island has suffered from lower-than-projected attendance, debt and overdue bills. The park owes more than $26 million to the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County, which have made most of the payments on a $25 million loan backed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Job creation numbers have fallen far short of the 715 positions promised.

But in the past year, the picture has brightened, park officials said. Last August Jungle Island made an overdue payment of $2 million that was its first on the federal loan, and it is scheduled to pay another $2 million on time this July, according to Serrate.

Still, the park faces a re-branding hurdle that will determine the park’s future, Dunlap said. One early step will be investing in catering.

“I want to make sure that we are the most-compelling destination with excellent food,” said Dunlap, whose professional background includes hospitality management at several Westin hotels. “We are already well-known in the city right now for being a unique catering venue, so advancing that is a top priority.”

For events, Dunlap said that he plans to embrace Miami’s climate. “This city is hot, so new attractions may involve water,” he said.

Dunlap also plans to offer more appealing merchandise — such as shirts and caps — that visitors can connect with and wear regularly.

By boosting its appeal, Dunlap hopes to bump up visitorship — which last year was around 450,000, about 300,000 less than the park originally projected — that in turn will increase jobs from the 426 full-time employees last summer.

“In advancing customer service, increasing retail and developing more events and attractions, we will be able to provide plenty of job opportunities,” he said.

During his five years as director of the San Diego Zoo, from 2008 until May of this year, the zoo’s revenues increased 25 percent and profits rose 33 percent, according to Dunlap.

“The goal is not to create another San Diego,” Dunlap said. “Jungle Island is completely unique because it’s an oasis in the urban core of Miami. Its size also allows visitors to be more intimate with animals than they would in other zoos.”

He hopes to spark the same sense of pride among Miamians for Jungle Island that San Diego residents feel for their zoo.

“It’s about creating meaningful plan that will compel people to visit Jungle Island and view it as an iconic family destination in the urban core of Miami,” he said.