Beyond beetles and bats, is Miami Wilds deal best for us?
With Miami-Dade unemployment highest in 80 years and our visitor industry hurting as never before, a long-sought attraction that would add 300-plus jobs would seem heaven sent. Miami Wilds might be just that. But you can’t tell that from its press clippings.
As a committee last week recommended a lease for the water park beside Zoo Miami for a full county commission vote in October, most of what we’ve read about the park has focused on dangers to the Miami Tiger Beetle and the Florida Bonneted Bat.
For decades South Dade, which was ravaged by Hurricane Andrew, sought some sort of water-oriented attraction to help recover economically. Efforts failed. Then in 2006 voters approved leasing unused county land beside the zoo to a water-oriented attraction. A hunt for a developer, spurred by now-outgoing Commissioner Dennis Moss, has gone on ever since.
That a lease is finally on the table should be a cause for rejoicing. Instead, environmental interests have become NIMBYs, folks who say Not In My Back Yard.
Despite the fact that the entire development would sit on what is now a vast paved zoo parking lot, environmentalists are outraged at the loss of valuable land for the beetle, the bat and other animal and plant species. Development, they say, would cost native species valuable space and might put them on the road to oblivion.
They are probably right. The more we develop, the less room for native animals and plants. The less space for animals and plants, the more perilous their existence. History tells of the passenger pigeons that disappeared. Birds whose plumage was used to adorn hats disappeared. Foxes we saw in Brickell 20 years ago aren’t there now. Same with the Florida Panther, which was common in the area of Vizcaya 100 years ago. The list of the vanished and vanishing is long.
We salute the guardians of nature like the Tropical Audubon Society and others who speak for the plants, animals and lands that we should and do treasure.
But balance that by speaking for the 14.2% of Miami-Dade workers who are unemployed – one in every seven members of our workforce. The animals and plants have spokespeople, and the residents and workers should too.
Humanity often has been the enemy of the wild. While Zoo Miami has worked to create habitat for its neighbor the Florida Bonneted Bat, in general wherever people appear and thrive wildlife and environment are harmed. We pave roads, we build homes, we work in buildings, we drive cars, we fish, we hunt – all at the expense of a natural habitat. We radically alter the balance of nature.
Now almost 2.8 million humans live in Miami-Dade, and tens of millions visit yearly. We can’t expect to preserve a natural environment that was here before humans arrived, or when Miami had 400 residents 125 years ago, or when the county had a third this many people in the 1950s. For those who didn’t want any growth, that train has left the station.
The issue now is how 2.8 million people can live well. Part of a good life is making sure we preserve as much of our environment as possible, but another part is to provide recreation and jobs, and the proper water park in South Dade can play a far more important role in our lives than an already paved but underused parking lot where bats and beetles might occasionally roam.
That’s not to say commissioners ought to approve a lease with Miami Wilds automatically. We have other questions.
For example, the agreement would turn free parking at Zoo Miami into a $9 cost, potentially rising annually with inflation. Is that good public policy? Commissioners should be asking.
Taxpayers also would be providing $13.5 million from tax-paid bonds in incentives. We’d be opening the door to a four-star hotel next door, in addition to the family hotel the contract calls for. We’d be paying millions for part of sewer hookup costs. And to save time, valuation of the land is based on 2012 and 2016 appraisals rather than current data: is that smart?
These all add up to one question: are taxpayers getting a square deal? We expect commissioners to examine that question at least as carefully as they examine the habitat for bats and beetles.
When presented with a major lease such as this, county government for years has focused on hot-button sidelights. When commissioners were handed a baseball stadium contract that cost taxpayers almost $3 billion, they focused on whether they could get jobs for district voters, not whether the deal itself was smart. They never uttered the word billion in hours of debate.
We hope the administration has vetted this contract well. But we expect commissioners to ask hard questions and to demand fact-based answers, not just hopes.
Beyond making sure the deal is the best taxpayers can get, natural environment should be probed – but commissioners also must balance against concerns for nature their very real concerns for the economy of this community and the amenities for its residents.
Are we better served by preserving 27.5 acres of underused paved parking beside the zoo or by providing a local amenity, tourist attraction and hundreds of jobs while reaping $120 million to maintain and expand Zoo Miami? If the deal is solid, it would be batty to pass it by.