Miami-Dade County

Zip lines, lazy river coming to Jungle Island after Miami-Dade gives OK for sale

View of Jungle Island grounds on Sept. 1, 2016.
View of Jungle Island grounds on Sept. 1, 2016.

The planned revival of Jungle Island cleared its final political hurdle Tuesday, as Miami-Dade commissioners endorsed transferring a failed hiring program and unpaid county loans to the new owners of the lush tourist attraction located between downtown Miami and South Beach.

Longtime owner Bern Levine and partners are selling the Jungle Island facilities and lease on Miami’s waterfront land to a real estate fund in Aventura, ESJ Capital. The private transaction required local approval because of the government support lent to the theme park, once known as Parrot Jungle, during its move from Pinecrest to Miami’s Watson Island in 2003.

As the new theme park struggled financially, the county and city agreed to make seven years’ worth of payments on a $25 million federal urban-development loan from 2001 that required the theme park to hire more than 600 low-income workers. Miami-Dade also loaned the theme park more than $7 million shortly after the move, and Jungle Island has fallen short of the profit targets that would have triggered required repayments. Those loans begin coming due in 2020, and on Tuesday county commissioners unanimously endorsed letting Levine and partners transfer the debt obligations to the proposed new owners.

With an aggressive redevelopment and rebranding plan, the underlying real estate and operating business of Jungle Island will drive more guests, while improving operating margins and commanding a premium entrance price.

Investor presentation by Jungle Island buyer, ESJ Capital

“This is going to solve many of the problems that are happening over there,” Commissioner Rebeca Sosa said of the Jungle Island sale. The new owners say they’re investing more than $80 million in the deal, and plan new waterfront restaurants, a zip-line over the animal park, a hotel, water park and a “lazy river” that would let visitors float through the campus.

“Current ownership is unable and unwilling to invest any additional capital into the park in order to do any necessary improvements,” ESJ wrote in its investor proposal. “With an aggressive redevelopment and rebranding plan, the underlying real estate and operating business of Jungle Island will drive more guests, while improving operating margins and commanding a premium entrance price.”

The park currently charges adults $33 to enter, and attracts about 315,000 visitors a year to a 19-acre property that can accommodate about 600,000 comfortably, according to ESJ’s proposal. ESJ said it wants to add another 100,000 visitors within five years.

County officials said they expect ESJ to pump about $10 million into the property quickly, and they argued the proposal would boost Jungle Island’s prospects of eventually reimbursing Miami-Dade for about $13 million in past tax-funded support. “If the operations are more profitable,” said Ed Marquez, deputy mayor for finance, “the likelihood of getting paid is increased.”

Marquez said Jungle Island has been making payments on the federal loan since 2012, and that Miami-Dade is still owed about $1.7 million from past payments. The bulk of the county’s Jungle Island obligations comes from $9.2 million in loans Miami-Dade tied to Jungle Island profit levels that still remain below projections. Mandatory payments begin in 2020, along with a required $2 million payment Jungle Island must make to ZooMiami as part of its original assistance package.

An administration memo said Jungle Island failed to hit the 603-job target required by the 2001 Housing and Urban Development loan. The new deal gives ESJ five years to hit the target. Brian May, a lobbyist for Jungle Island, said a 2012 audit found the theme park and banquet hall had hired about 475 low-income workers.

While HUD officials still must approve the loan transfer, Jungle Island saw the county vote as the last hurdle to completing the deal after winning Miami’s approval in November.

Commissioner Joe Martinez said he doubted a new owner would bring an end to the Parrot Jungle saga.

“Is it a better deal than we had? Yeah. But it’s still a bad deal,” he said. “I get the feeling we’re going to see this again.”

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