County guarantees zoo would get revenues from entertainment complex
By Eric Kalis
Miami-Dade County commissioners last week reaffirmed their support of a $1 billion entertainment district near the Miami MetroZoo with a measure guaranteeing that revenues from the complex would go directly to the zoo's expansion.
Commissioner Dennis Moss, a proponent of building an adventure theme park, water park and 300-room hotel next to the zoo, sponsored the measure, which passed unanimously Sept. 26. Voters will decide Nov. 7 whether to allow the county to request proposals to hire a private developer for the complex.
The purpose of the measure, Mr. Moss said, is to clarify the county's intention to pour revenues from the district back into the zoo, which is in the midst of a $365 million expansion. Since the complex would rise on county-owned land, neither the county nor taxpayers would be on the hook to fund the parks and hotels, said Vivian Donnell Rodriguez, director of the county's parks and recreation department.
Mr. Moss emphasized that the private-sector projects would enhance the zoo as a visitor destination. "We wanted to make sure the public understands that this development will benefit the zoo's operation and bring tourists to the area," he said.
County officials are not waiting until Nov. 7 to shop the project to developers, said Mr. Moss, who will attend the Water Park Association's annual conference in Orlando on Oct. 15. The county continues to receive queries from prominent water park operators, such as national company Palace Entertainment, which just built a water park at Silver Springs near Ocala, and Texas-based Schlitterbahn.
"The conference is a way for us to put on a big marketing push," Mr. Moss said. "Hopefully, we can spur more interest in the project. Right now our focus is on the water park portion."
County officials have not outlined specifics for the proposal, Mr. Moss said, but it is possible that the developer of the water park would have the opportunity to bid on other portions of the complex. There is no timetable for awarding the project yet, he said.
A 2002 economic impact study by LEDO International estimated that 74% of park revenues would come from local patrons. County officials have not requested an updated study, Mr. Moss said, and remain confident the park would be a success. The study indicated that park attendance would increase five-fold to 2.5 million annual visitors and create 1,654 permanent jobs.
The development of housing in the area surrounding the zoo offers a vast local market for the park, Mr. Moss said. The South Florida climate will allow the park to stay open throughout the year, giving it a competitive advantage over parks in other parts of the county, he said.
Reliance on local clientele makes the idea of a 300-room hotel at the complex seem excessive, said Guy Trusty, president of Lodging and Hospitality Realty of Coral Gables. The hotel could be used for local business functions, he said, but it should have closer to 200 rooms to keep operating costs down.
"A MetroZoo hotel could provide the best of all worlds if enough local businesses use it, but they will not if the rates are too high," said Mr. Trusty, who consults on hotel projects. "There should be a demand within the business community in that location."
To compete with high-priced hotels in the Keys, Mr. Trusty said, the hotel operator would have to be reputable and offer affordable rates. The county must be flexible when proposing the project, he said.
"The county has a preconceived notion of what it wants," Mr. Trusty said. "That could narrow the field of potential respondents. To simply respond to a proposal costs a couple hundred thousand dollars."