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Miami Herald - 1/26/05 -

County to pay Parrot Jungle's loan

Miami-Dade County is preparing to cover Parrot Jungle's loan payments, sparking complaints from those who want those dollars for the disadvantaged.


Parrot Jungle will miss its second loan payment this month as the Miami tourist attraction tries to right its business plan and turn a profit, officials said.

The tropical-themed minizoo's financial problems sparked a debate Tuesday over the county covering the park's loan payments with federal dollars earmarked for social services. It also revealed a possible dispute with Miami over which government should shoulder Parrot Jungle's losses.

Parrot Jungle fell short of attendance and revenue targets after opening two summers ago, leaving Miami-Dade Countysmall to cover the park's June $1.3 million installment on a $25 million federal loan used to subsidize construction of the for-profit park. The next loan payment, for about $930,000, comes due Feb. 1 and County Manager George Burgess has recommended the County Commission cover that, too. The full commission is expected to decide the matter at its Tuesday meeting.

Miami leaders agreed in 1998 to assume responsibility for 80 percent of the loan once the city's then-dismal credit rating improved enough to qualify for administering the federal funds. But the hand-over of the obligations never occurred, leaving Miami-Dade responsible for the full loan.

Bryan Finnie, the Miami-Dade official in charge of Parrot Jungle's loan, said the county might ask the park to stop paying rent on the city-owned site until it catches up on loan payments. Parrot Jungle paid about $706,000 to the city last year in rent, according to the county.

David Rosemond, chief of staff to City Manager Joe Arriola, said negotiations are underway on the matter but declined to elaborate.


On Tuesday, advocates for the poor and other programs urged county leaders not to subsidize a multimilliondollar business with federal funds that could be used to help the disadvantaged. The county could use those dollars to cover the loan payment or dip into the general fund.

''I don't want to sacrifice some of the good things that are going on . . . to cover the debt service for a group I am sure is doing very well,'' former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek told the county's Community Empowerment and Economic Revitalization Committee. A parade of social agencies and activists made their annual plea for the coveted federal funds.

The county is allotted just under $60 million in community development grants for this year but received roughly $170 million in requests.

Parrot Jungle qualified for the federal funds in 1998, administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, by pledging to create more than 600 jobs for residents of Miami's depressed urban areas. Parrot Jungle says it employs almost 700 people, most of them in the banquet operations, which includes a large kitchen and restaurant staff.

Burgess said in a Jan. 20 memo that the county could deduct its Parrot Jungle payments from HUD funds -- a move critics said would show misguided priorities.

''I don't doubt Parrot Jungle was hurt by the hurricanes and 9/11,'' said County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler, whose district includes both the struggling residents of Overtown and the winged denizens of Parrot Jungle. ``I think they deserve some assistance, but don't take it from poor people.''

Parrot Jungle blames its financial problems on construction delays, a rocky opening, the tourism slump from the 9/11 attacks, and travel disruptions from last year's hurricanes.

Income statements filed with the county showed that Parrot Jungle was running a $2.6 million loss as of Oct. 1, at the end of the four-storm assault. Parrot Jungle missed its first loan payment, for $1.3 million, in July, before the hurricanes arrived. The park estimated a $2.1 million loss for 2004.


The missed payments revealed a severe cash crunch at the first new tourist attraction to open in Miami-Dade County since Metrozoo debuted in 1981.

Majority owner Bern Levine said he, his wife and partner Ronald Krongold have put $15 million into the business. The original development plan called for them to invest about $8 million into the project, according to county records.

Opened in 1936 in Pinecrest, Parrot Jungle abandoned those leafy suburban environs in 2003 for Watson Island, minutes from the heart of the region's tourist industry in South Beach. But the new location didn't meet Levine's expectations. Locals missed the lush surroundings in Pinecrest, Parrot Jungle failed to attract cruise passengers from the nearby port, and ticket sales generally lagged.

Levine said he has been encouraged by recent attendance figures but declined Tuesday to predict when Parrot Jungle could begin making loan payments again. Its short-term agreement with the county calls for it to repay the missed payments once business improves, and both Levine and county officials were optimistic.