For a shady, tasty, and juicy tour through early Miami history, grab a knife and head for Miami-Dade’s Redland Fruit and Spice Park, a living showcase of crops that Miami-Dade’s earliest pioneers grew on America’s subtropical frontier.
Visitors are free to eat whatever falls from the trees, carving up sapodillas and papaya and egg fruit and any of the 175 mango varieties that grow inside.
“We give them a little plastic knife if they don’t have one,” said park manager Jim Stribling, recalling scenes from the height of the summer fruit season. “They’re just covered in mango, and sticky and happy.”
The future of the county park centers on less exotic components: a covered pavilion to accommodate weddings and other lucrative gatherings, overflow parking, and a new lawn to hold up to 60 tents for large festivals. To help pay for the improvements, the parks department also wants to nearly double the current cap on admission fees to $18.
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So far, park officials aren’t planning on entry increases next year. They say they just want the County Commission to OK a higher ceiling to give pricing flexibility down the road after a $1 million construction project that includes the projects to make the World War II-era attraction more event friendly. The approval would come when the commission gives final approval to the county budget later this month.
But the eye on more revenue captures broader pressure on parks across Miami-Dade, as tight budgets and prospects for profitable reinventions have managers weighing new revenue opportunities.
“We want to decrease the subsidy as much as we can,” said Stribling, a veteran of the local horticulture industry who Miami-Dade recruited three years ago to take over as director of Fruit and Spice Park. “But we don’t want to degrade the garden or the experience in the process.”
Budget pressures are nothing new for municipal parks, but David Beckham helped bring the issue into sharper focus this year in the Miami area. The retired soccer star and his partners are promising millions of dollars of revenue to Miami in exchange for converting a city golf course into a one-million-square-foot commercial complex and professional soccer stadium surrounding 58 acres of traditional park land.
Melreese Golf Course, a privately run 131-acre course, is one of the largest properties in the city’s parks system and cost Miami’s budget an average of $88,000 annually over the last five years, according to a breakdown released this week by the city manager’s office.
Miami’s embrace of the Beckham plan, which goes to voters in November, prompted scrutiny of how much the county is spending to subsidize the five golf courses in Miami-Dade’s parks system. County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa in July asked for a report on finances of the county’s golf system, which the proposed 2019 budget shows losing about $3 million.
“Can you provide an analysis, one-by-one, of the golf courses to see how much we are losing?” Sosa said to Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
Months before he joined the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump was hoping similar concerns would give his resort company control of the county’s premiere 18 holes: the Crandon Park golf course on Key Biscayne. His company offered to spend $10 million fixing up the course and pledged at least $100,000 a year to the county for running a course that was losing money. “I WOULD LIKE TO MAKE IT GREAT!” Trump wrote in a March 2015 letter to Gimenez.
That deal fizzled, weeks before Trump announced for president in June 2015. But there’s still interest in a possible private-sector boost for public golf courses. Gimenez has floated the idea of striking deals with companies like Top Golf — which embeds driving ranges into a sports-bar setting — to boost revenues at county courses.
“We could also look at doing golf courses a different way,” Gimenez told Sosa during the July 24 budget hearing, “with a different management style.”
Still, Gimenez described the county’s parks system as a public service that shouldn’t be judged on profit and losses.
“We suffer losses in all our parks,” he said. “We subsidize our parks.”
The parks system largely relies on property taxes to close the revenue gaps not filled by parkgoers. One notable drain on the budget is Zoo Miami, a popular county-owned tourist attraction that is forecast to run a $16 million deficit in 2019. The parks system itself needs about $80 million from general funds — pools of government revenue where about 80 cents of every dollar comes from property taxes.
Parks subsidies make up a tiny portion of the county’s $7.8 billion budget, and look like drops compared to the rivers of property taxes that flow into much larger agencies like police ($564 million from general funds), jails ($356 million) and transit and public works ($223 million).
The mayor’s proposed 2019 budget includes dozens of fee increases within the county’s 270-park system, but most are minor tweaks or affect niche costs paid by a limited number of users.
There’s a $5 increase to the $25 fee for renting ball fields an additional hour; a bump in the chickee hut fee from $273 to $355 at Pelican Island, and an extra $2 to play tennis at night to cover the light bills. The maximum parks can charge for pool admissions would go up about $1.20 for children under 13 and $3 for everybody else to $3.74 and $5.61, respectively. Miami-Dade commissioners are set to give their final approval of the fees Thursday, Sept. 20, in a series of votes that would adopt the full budget.
Fruit and Spice is the only park singled out for a future price change, with a budget entry stating: “Fee increase needed to improve cost recovery.” The current $9.35 price cap at Fruit Spice, which includes tickets for park special events, would rise to $18 under the 2019 budget. Once passed, the parks department could raise prices up to the cap as it sees fit.
County officials emphasize the fee increases only represent the maximum amount that parks can charge, with the actual fees often significantly lower.
For instance, the current maximum fee at county pools sits at $2.57, but the county’s Little River Park pool charges only $1.50 to swim. The Fruit and Spice Park also charges less than it could under the current cap. Adult admissions at the park are priced at $8, and children between 6 and 11 costing only $2. Kids under six are free, making it one of the cheapest attractions for families in Miami-Dade.
“It’s wonderful,” said Rashad McEady, a fruit aficionado from New Jersey who brought his family to the Fruit and Spice park on a recent Tuesday afternoon. “It’s relaxing. You’re always surrounded by nature.”
With no ticket increases planned next year, getting into the tastiest of the county’s parks should remain significantly cheaper than privately owned tourist attractions. Five miles away, the Coral Castle Museum costs $18 to enter. Fairchild Tropical Gardens, a lusher collection of plants without the edible options, charges $25.
“We want people to experience this,” said Paul Vitro, chief of the parks division that includes Fruit and Spice, during a golf-cart tour of the 37-acre garden deep in South Dade’s farm country. “If you look at comparable [prices], we’re definitely on the low side. That’s to focus on accessibility.”
Fruit and Spice attracts about 63,000 visitors a year, many who make the 35-mile trip from Miami down to Redland, the heart of the county’s farming territory and an area named for the color of its clay soil. Ticket sales aren’t enough to cover the park’s $800,000 yearly budget, and it’s expected to post a loss of about $435,000 for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.
A draft master plan for the $1 million construction project would bring the most significant reworking of the park since 1992’s Hurricane Andrew ruined historic buildings on the property, devastated the plants and sparked the current globe-trotting design during the recreation of the gardens.
A new covered event space near a cluster of West African ackee trees will give brides and grooms permanent cover from the rain. A new parking lot by the avocado grove would house 60 cars for large parties, with a grassed-in area nearby able to hold 200 more. Another new clearing by the sausage trees and other specimens of the park’s African collection would be the hub for large festivals, with room for 60 tents, food trucks and other vendors. Fruit and Spice already holds large events, including a popular seafood fest in the fall, an Asian culture festival in the spring, and star-gazing nights through the winter. The capped ticket price also applies to events put on by the park.
The construction plan includes improvements for parkgoers too: reworked paths to isolate the walkways from the tram tours; an expanded visitors center at the entrance, a larger greenhouse, and a new play area for children.
The idea of a fruit park came early in the 20th century from Mary Calkins Heinlein, who arrived in South Dade in 1910 at age seven. A childhood fascination with the subtropical fruits grown by fellow settler families led Heinlein to lobby Dade County to establish a showcase for local exotic crops. When Fruit and Spice Park opened in 1944, she was its first superintendent, tending to trees and plants brought in from her own nursery.
Nearly 75 years later, the unassuming park nurtures not just South Dade’s fruit and nuts, but trees and plants that grow in the same subtropical latitudes that Miami shares with parts of Asia, Africa, the Pacific and other parts of the Americas and the Caribbean. One corner of the African enclave features a cluster of baobab trees — made famous by “The Lion King” animated movie. The Pacific section includes the Hawaiian taro plant, used to produce poi.
At the replica 1906 school house that serves as the entrance and gift shop, a park guide offers visitors samples of some of the collection’s tastiest fruits: a “velvet apple” tasting of fruity cream; “egg fruit” canistel with a surprisingly firm, sweet flesh; and the bean of a “miracle fruit,” which, when chewed, leaves a raw lemon wedge tasting of lemonade.
Breadfruit trees grow within the confines of the Tropical Asian Greenhouse. Outside, a 40-foot-tall teak tree looms above a spicy-leafed curry tree. Winter brings a harvest of macadamia nuts in the Australian section, spring the Brazilian jaboticaba fruit. There are cashew trees, and a tree that produces an “ice cream” bean with hints of vanilla. There’s allspice and sugar cane and chupa-chupa and Jackfruit as large as carry-on suitcases.
“You get your hard-core fruit people,” said Stribling, one of two full-time employees assigned to Fruit and Spice in a Parks Department that relies on part-time workers. “You’ve got people who just want a nice day out. We have a lot of families who bring their kids to slow down and like the quiet and the nature.”
He sees future price increases as a reasonable way to generate some more dollars without hurting attendance.
“We’re behind the market in terms of costs right now,” he said. “If we’re able to improve things for the guest experience, I think we can easily absorb the increases we’re talking about.”