Water-slide park a slippery slope that could douse public
By Michael Lewis
The county's vote last week to go toe to toe with Orlando in the theme-park business is pitting a lion king against a mouse - with Miami, not Disney, playing Mickey's role.
Adding a 20-acre water-slide park, a 300-room hotel and shops and restaurants to the MetroZoo complex would be nice but would hardly put the area on fair footing with Disney and friends.
Our MetroZoo attracts a half-million people a year, down from an average 850,000 in the 1980s, before Hurricane Andrew. With skillful management, a small theme park and hotel could double or triple that at the stated capital cost of $1 billion.
But in Orlando, Disney alone tallied 16.2 million visitors last year to its Magic Kingdom, 9.9 million to Epcot Center, 8.6 million to Disney-MGM Studios and 8.2 million to Disney Animal Kingdom. The payroll, not investment, was $1.1 billion last year to achieve that.
While we plan to offer one zoo, one water theme park and one 300-room hotel, Disney alone has onsite 17 theme resorts, five vacation clubs, 10 non-Disney resorts, six golf courses, 12 Monorails, more than 30 major attractions and on and on. The Disney-MGM lion would never even notice Miami's mouse.
That said, a themed complex at MetroZoo might well be a good investment of county-owned land and resources in the future of South Miami-Dade. Even a mouse in the entertainment world could be worthwhile - after all, Mickey hasn't always been the 400-pound lion of vacations. You have to start somewhere.
But before voters Nov. 7 rubberstamp the county's plan to cut a deal with a developer to take over public land and piggyback on a quality public zoo, they deserve detailed answers to 13 key questions:
1. What exactly do we aim to achieve? Commissioner Dennis Moss envisions a complex to lure visitors before they head for Orlando - farfetched unless they happen to drive past from the Keys on the way to Disney. An attraction aimed at outings for local residents would be more realistic.
2. Who is the developer? Mr. Moss says several have contacted him, but he won't reveal names. Recent public-private ventures here have featured ineffective private developers who soared over budget, leaving taxpayers holding shaky projects at inflated costs.
3. By what process will we choose a developer? What parameters will the county place on the deal? If it's a competitive bid, how would it be structured?
4. What is the deal? In voting, commissioners were told some county profits would be used to enhance the zoo. But that assumes the county ever gets paid. A deal to build AmericanAirlines Arena promised the county revenue above a specified threshold. Yet even with the Miami Heat winning the championship this year, the county has yet to pocket a single dime. How would we cut a fair deal this time?
5. Must we build more roads? Lay water and sewer lines? Add fire and police protection? We should know before we vote. Otherwise, we're buying a Porky Pig in a poke.
6. What will spin off nearby? Will open country become motel rows? What do studies show - if we've made any?
7. How do water theme parks typically draw? In other words, how realistic a catalyst is this?
8. On the flip side, what would actually rise on this land? The commission voted for uses "such as" the water theme park and so on. That leaves the door open for myriad uses. What taxpayers actually vote on shouldn't be open-ended. Remember the promised soccer fields behind AmericanAirlines Arena that were never opened.
9. The commission approved using buildings the county will buy from the Coast Guard for temporary housing run by a private operator. Who? What's the deal?
10. How would the development's footprint fill both the 740-acre zoo site and the Coast Guard land? How much public land would go to developers, and what would remain public?
11. Confirm the upside costs and downside risks. What would taxpayers be on the hook for if a water theme park capsized? Who would then get the land? How much public land and public money are involved, and what are the estimated best-case and worst-case public benefits? To what extent would the public subsidize a for-profit venture?
12. How many theme parks survive even 10 years, and what causes failure? Large and small, theme parks have been iffy. We don't want to hand our best public site in the south county to a project with high failure probability if better uses could succeed.
13. Who in county government would cut and then oversee the deal? We don't want another AmericanAirlines Arena freebie to a developer or another construction-cost fiasco like the Performing Arts Center, or the wrong kind of building like the old Miami Arena, or a developer to run out of cash like the first restorer of the city-owned Coral Gables Biltmore Hotel, or a faulty premise like Miami's James L. Knight Center. Government here has a history of screwing up developments. How will we prevent it this time?
A South Miami-Dade attraction is enticing. In theory, we are very much in favor, both to develop the economy and to serve residents.
But we mustn't deal away valuable land around our zoo in a way that might imperil its future unless we get far more details. We need to maximize the one opportunity we have on the site rather than chase rainbows.
If what we've been told is all government knows about a plan under study since 1997, it would be foolhardy to vote for it in November. Commissioners and the administration need to be forthcoming with details - quickly.