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A hotel on Jungle Island? Voters will decide

Rendering of the new zip lines and lagoon set to come to Jungle Island by 2019.
Rendering of the new zip lines and lagoon set to come to Jungle Island by 2019. Jungle Island

Despite saying that a hotel on Jungle Island was likely years away, the animal theme park’s owners are now faced with a hotel deal too good to pass up.

They’re moving forward with plans to build a boutique hotel on the 19-acre Watson Island site, but they’ll need Miami voters to approve the plans first in November.

“A unique opportunity has presented itself with an international adventure park hotel brand that does not currently operate in South Florida,” said a statement from asset management firm ESJ Capital Partners, which took over ownership of Jungle Island in April. “Because it is an opportunity that needs to be immediately capitalized upon, or it will be lost, we have decided to move forward with a resolution and ask City of Miami voters to support us in furthering the eco-adventure destination dream for Jungle Island.”

The park would not divulge the name of the hotel company involved.

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John Dunlap, CEO of Iconic Attractions and president of Jungle Island, gets close to a parrot at Jungle Island on June 13, 2017 Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

That eco-adventure vision would bring zip lines, a two-acre man-made lagoon and other improvements to the cash-strapped park over the next several years, a transformation owners hope will reinvigorate the attraction after years of flat attendance, failed promises and missed payments.

But just last month, the park told the Herald that a hotel was likely years off, and would only be built if the renovation was successful and the new park experience merited a hotel component.

“We want to lead with a great park that then becomes a resort destination,” John Dunlap, CEO of Iconic Attractions and president of Jungle Island, told the Herald in June.

Jungle Island’s lease with the city of Miami, which owns Watson Island, includes the potential for a hotel development but with the caveat that it must be approved via a citywide referendum.

Last week, ESJ filed a resolution with the city of Miami proposing it consider placing Jungle Island’s hotel referendum on the ballot on Nov. 7. Commissioners will vote on the matter Thursday.

Because it is an opportunity that needs to be immediately capitalized upon, or it will be lost, we have decided to move forward with a resolution and ask City of Miami voters to support us in furthering the eco-adventure destination dream for Jungle Island.

Statement from Jungle Island owners, ESJ Capital Partners

The resolution calls for a $50 million hotel up to 130 feet tall, or about 13 stories, with up to 300 guests rooms. A boutique hotel, like the one ESJ is proposing, would likely be much smaller than 300 rooms. The hotel’s final design will be subject to city approval.

According to ESJ’s proposal, the hotel would also have up to 10,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, as well as up to 30,000 square feet of meeting space.

As rent, ESJ will pay Miami 1 percent of the annual gross revenue of the hotel after the first 18 months it is in operation. That will be in addition to the more than $500,000 in annual rent the park already pays the city.

ESJ is also asking voters to approve an extension of Jungle Island’s lease from 2060 to 2099, “to be allowed to develop this unique, boutique hotel,” the company said.

Other stipulations in the agreement call for a $700,000 payment to Ichimura-Miami Japanese Gardens to construct a walkway to Jungle Island and make other necessary maintenance repairs to the garden. ESJ is also planning to build a $500,000 green energy educational facility that will focus on wind and solar energy.

The resolution calls for a $50 million hotel up to 130 feet tall, or about 13 stories, with up to 300 guests rooms. The hotel’s final design will be subject to city approval.

All of that information will come before voters if the city commission approves the referendum for the ballot. But City Commissioner Ken Russell, in whose district Jungle Island lies, is worried the language will distract voters from the true purpose of the referendum.

“All of the extra things in there that are part of the deal I think can be good, as long as they don’t distract from the clear intent of what the voters have to decide on,” Russell said in an interview Friday. “Do the voters want a hotel there or not?”

Jungle Island, an 81-year-old attraction, is in the process of gaining a new identity: as an action-adventure destination. The renovation, owners hope, will save the cash-strapped park and raise attendance.

Nearby residents on the Venetian Islands have sued the city over other developments on Watson Island, concerned that additions violate the city charter and could create a traffic snarl on the MacArthur Causeway. Miami recently declared Flagstone Island Gardens’ planned hotel development across the street from Jungle Island to be in default of its agreement with the city, after being urged by a group of nearby residents who have also been unsuccessfully challenging the project in court. (Judges have dismissed several lawsuits to stop new projects.)

Roger Craver, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Flagstone and president of the nonprofit Coalition Against Causeway Chaos, said the proposed maximum size of the Jungle Island hotel would not be an issue — as long as voters have the chance to approve the project.

All of the extra things in there that are part of the deal I think can be good, as long as they don’t distract from the clear intent of what the voters have to decide on.

Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell

“The traffic on Jungle Island probably will increase because they’ll improve that site, but the hotel per se doesn’t represent a problem for us,” Craver said. “As long as the referendum contains the height in stories so that voters understand what the height is, if the voters approve it, they approve it.”

Jungle Island, originally Parrot Jungle, moved from its original location in Pinecrest to Watson Island in 2003 with the help of a $25 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the park struggled to meet attendance goals and failed to make its loan payments and rent payments, as the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County cut checks to keep it afloat.

Russell said he believes Jungle Island’s new owners are a “good partner” that will finally bring changes to the park.

“It behooves all of us to see it be successful,” Russell said. “The question is just to what scale of intensity the public wants.”

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH

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