Jungle Island in line for tax break, though Dade commissioners have concerns
By Risa Polansky
Looks like theme park Jungle Island is to see a tax break from Miami-Dade County, but not without questions from commissioners — including about the attraction's financial viability.
Because the Watson Island park relocated from Pinecrest to what's designated an economically depressed "enterprise zone," it's eligible for a tax exemption so long as at least 20% of its employees live within the zone.
Should commissioners give final approval, Jungle Island could receive as much as $396,800 covering five years beginning in fiscal 2007.
That's $396,800 less for a county staring down a $119.5 million budget hole this fiscal year.
"This is money we're not going to get to do the priorities that we consider important," Commissioner Katy Sorenson said at a Housing and Community Development Committee meeting last week.
The committee OK'd the tax break, but some commissioners said they plan to do some thinking before the item comes up for final approval.2
"I know that we've done a lot to supplement the Parrot Jungle over the years," Barbara Jordan said.
The county secured a $25 million loan to help fund the attraction's move about seven years ago.
The City of Miami later agreed to take on 80% of all future loan payments.
The theme park is to assume all debt in 2012, begin repaying the county in 2014 and begin repaying the city in 2020.
Ms. Jordan said her concern is that the theme park return the favors by employing as many empowerment zone residents as possible, specifically from Overtown.
Attorney Al Dotson Jr. on behalf of the park said that about 21% of employees live within the zone.
Jungle Island employs 275 staffers, 57 of them enterprise zone residents.
For Ms. Sorenson, who also pressed for more employees from the zone, the attraction's financial stability was another major concern.
"Are they viable?" she asked.
County Housing and Community Development Director Shalley Jones Horn said she couldn't speak to that, but "they are still in business and this [tax break] would assist them in meeting their obligations."
Replied Ms. Sorenson, "The question is, how much should we continue to put in this business to prop it up? It's a for-profit business, and it's expensive to go there…. If $300,000 in taxes over five years puts this organization on the edge, that really raises questions about their viability in my mind."
Commissioner Javier Souto suggested the county provide the full history of any company involved and its economic outlook to assist with such decisions in the future.