Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Jungle Island slashes labor costs, still loses money

Updates on Watson Island

By John Dorschner

      John Dunlap, Jungle Island's new president, has managed to boost admission revenue while slashing labor costs by 40 percent, but the long-troubled tourist attraction still showed a net operating loss of $813,435 for the first eight months of this year, 51 percent worse than the loss for the same period last year.
       Dunlap, 37, was brought in last year from San Diego to transform the property, and he's announced plans to create a “real jungle experience” for tourists, including swimming, zip lines and a beach. “Our goal is to be Miami's water attraction,” he said in a cover story by this reporter in the Biscayne Times October edition, entitled The Long, Dismal Saga of Watson Island, available HERE.
       Jungle Island is healthy and thriving,” a spokeswoman said in an email Wednesday morning. “While year-over-year admissions were up through August, a host of new (2014) special events and programs have been implemented which has driven down current year profitability.
        “However, all of these initiatives are expected to make a positive impact to the park in the years to come. As an example, we recently transformed an un-groomed and underutilized parcel of land into a spectacular sandy beach with a floating aqua park to take advantage of Jungle Island’s prime location on Biscayne Bay and to expand the average length of stay,” the spokeswoman said. “The installation came at a one-time cost of over $300,000.”
         Meanwhile, another major player on Watson Island, Flagstone Property Group, has filed a motion to intervene in a citizen's lawsuit against the city that is intended to block the development, and a Flagstone spokeswoman has come forward to say the proposed Island Gardens project has many positive elements.
           At time of publication of the Biscayne Times story, government sources had not responded to two requests for information: The city of Miami on Jungle Island's financial reports and state wildlife regulators on the attraction's perimeter fencing requirements. Both entities have since supplied the requested reports.
             State regulators say that Jungle Island doesn't need to meet many requirements because the tigers caged there are only temporary, even though most of the cats have been there for years. More on that later.

                                 BIG SAVINGS IN OUT-SOURCING
             The Jungle Island financial reports provided by the city reveal major changes since Duncan took over in June 2013, although most changes didn't start to show up on the financials until the start of 2014.
            The biggest move was out-sourcing many of the park functions, including food concessions, the banquet hall, gift shot and photo shoots. The records show that Ovations, which runs the food and banquet operations, pays Jungle Island 30 to 35 percent of its revenues while picking up all food and labor costs.
             Deals like this have dropped the park's employee costs – including wages, benefits and worker's comp – from $4.24 million in the first eight months of 2013 to $2.53 million for the same period in 2014.
             “Overall cost and the number of jobs provided to the local economy is largely unchanged,” the spokeswoman said. “We have a joint venture agreement with Ovations. All employees under Ovations are Jungle Island employees. ... No Miami based Jungle Island jobs were lost with the shift of these services to third party suppliers. In fact, Jungle Island’s plans to add new attractions to the park will result in job creation.”
              The financial report doesn't mention how many people the attraction employs – a crucial issue because Jungle Island received a federal loan of $25 million to build the facility – on condition that it employ at least 603 people, according to county officials.
Dunlap told Biscayne Times that the park is in full compliance with its loan promises but didn't provide exact employment figures. “We expect that Jungle Island will be forthcoming with that data,” the county told Biscayne Times.
              Another major change: Expanding special events. That helped boost admission revenue from $3.7 million for the first eight months of 2013 to $3.9 million for the same period this year.
               One example: Winter World Island, which featured a beach snow machine. These promotions increased attendance – but at a cost. Special events expenses were $329,000 for 2014, compared to a mere $7,000 for the same period last year.
              “We are putting a greater emphasis on special events in order to broaden our reach and attract new guests to the park,” the spokeswoman said. “However, both figures do not accurately represent special projects in the same category. We also introduced new after-hour events this year and brought in additional labor to service them. Examples include Africa Nights and the current Terror in the Jungle Halloween attraction, which employs 80 cast members.”
               The financial report indicates that Jungle Island is current with its rent payments – paying the city $545,000 for the first eight months.
                                 NO NEED FOR A PERIMETER FENCE?

               Because Jungle Island has tigers and other animals considered potentially dangerous, it is regulated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
                No state official was made available before the Biscayne Times deadine, but a spokeswoman said that Jungle Island was in full compliance with state regulations. She sent along a copy of the rules that indicated generally an eight-foot-high perimeter fence is required, but that older facilities, such as Jungle Island, don't have to abide by that rule.
                Jeff Shimonski, the attraction's former vice president of facilities, said that while the fencing of the individual cages is strong, he was concerned that there were gaps in the perimeter fence. Dunlap says that, as a former zoo director, he understands fencing requirements and Jungle Island has no problems.
                 After publication of the BT article, the state spokeswoman said that upon further checking Jungle Island didn't need a perimeter fence because the “cats currently at the facility are there in travel status only.”
                  The tigers are owned by an outside company, but Shimonski, who left earlier this year after almost 40 years with the attraction, says “I'm not sure how one would define 'travel status.' The cats are there for years. Occasionally one is moved for health or other concerns.”
                                         FLAGSTONE SPEAKS OUT

          Bahar Bayarktar, director of communications for Flagstone Property Group, sent a statement on Wednesday: Construction of Island Gardens started earlier this year, encompassing multiple projects including the development of North America's first super-yacht marina and a multi-acre public use waterfront art park, all of which will be major engines for economic growth, community development and tourism for South Florida. We are excited about the progress, which will help create thousands of jobs to the local economy, and bring in millions in economic impact.”
          She said the construction project could pay over $500 million to workers. “When doors open in 2017, Island Gardens will create 3,000 jobs, providing approximately $72 million in wages to local residents and afford millions in additional revenues” for city, county and schools.
           A far less upbeat view is held by the Coalition against Causeway Chaos. Two of its members last month sued the city, saying that political leaders had violated their own charter in allowing Flagstone to pay less than market value rent for its Watson Island holdings.
            The lawsuit, filed by Stephen Herbits and Sharon Kerby Wynne, complains that the city's own reports show that Flagstone should be paying more than $7 million in annual rent when the project is completed, not the $2 million the contract calls for.
Flagstone has been planning the long-delayed project since 2001, when it first signed a deal with the city. 
          Critics have complained that the Flagstone development really isn't under way yet, with the company only doing some underwater surveying as it prepares to dredge for the marina.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A UM doc, a KKK guy and the Gaza-Israel Debate

By John Dorschner
         Cast of characters: a UM professor emeritus, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan,  a Norwegian doctor who defends the 9/11 Al-Qaeda attackers, a British medical journal, an Israeli health center and others, including a cameo appearance by Fidel Castro.
       The drama began two-plus months ago in the Lancet, a widely respected British medical journal, when five doctors and scientists submitted a letter decrying Israel's bombing of Gaza.
        That led to swirls of charges and counter-chargers, bringing to the fore two main issues – to what extent medicine should get involved in politics and how easy it is for opponents of Israeli military actions to find themselves embracing old-fashioned anti-Semites.
Murray Epstein
         The University of Miami connection is Murray Epstein, a nephrologist and professor emeritus of medicine who continues to lead clinical investigation studies in the United States and European Union. His role comes later in the story.
          The maelstrom began in July when the Lancet published An Open Letter for the People of Gaza, signed by five who said they spoke for 19 others. They lambasted “the ruthless assault” by Israel.
         “We are appalled by the military onslaught on civilians in Gaza under the guise of punishing terrorists,” the five wrote. “We as scientists and doctors cannot keep silent while this crime against humanity continues,” the authors said.
            The journal was bombarded by letters – pro and con. Two Italians wrote: “The renewed tragedy of the ongoing intolerable violation of the right to life and self-determination of Palestinian people by the Israeli troops must be stopped.”
           Many others shared the thoughts voiced in a letter by Bruce M. Marmor and Beverly A. Spirit: “It is totally inappropriate for a peer-reviewed medical journal to publish purely political, inaccurate, and prejudiced pieces... Where is the sympathy for the Israeli citizens who live under constant rocket attacks and invasions through tunnels that extend under kindergartens and people's homes by Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews?"
           The debate was just getting started. Some angry doctors urged a boycott of Lancet. On Aug. 4, Lancet responded with an unsigned editorial, saying editors favored neither side, but "when one enters Gaza, it is as if one is entering a prison. … Debris lies everywhere.”
Lancet editor Horton
         The editorial defended printing the original letter: “Here is a war that is having far-reaching effects on the survival, health, and well being of Gaza's and Israel's civilian residents. It is surely the duty of doctors to have informed views, even strong views, about these matters; to give a voice to those who have no voice." 
        Critics shot back that the writers of the original letter were far from impartial. Most had strong connections to Palestine and some had received grants from pro-Arab anti-Israel groups.
            One of the authors, Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor who worked extensively in Gaza, once told a Norwegian newspaper that America's enemies were justified in the 9/11 attacks because “if the U.S. government has a legitimate right to bomb and kill civilians in Iraq, the oppressed has a moral right to attack the U.S.”
            NGO Monitor, an Israel-based group, focused on two other authors, Paola Manduca and Swee Ang, publishing emails the pair sent to a Google group dubbed “Always Against the War.”
           The emails included a report that Egypt's new president was a secret Jew. Another repeated Fidel Castro's blasting the Israelis' attacks on Gaza. But the one that got the most attention was Manduca and Ang asking the group: "Please watch ... this video before it is removed from circulation.”
           The link went to a YouTube video entitled “CNN Goldman Sachs & the Zio Matrix,” which alleged that Jewish-dominated media was being unfair to Palestinians.
David Duke's video
The video was made by David Duke, a former Grand Wizard in the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of White People.
         Manduca and Ang said they had no idea who Duke was when they recommended his video, although Duke's name was widely publicized in Europe in 2013 when Italy kicked him out for trying to start an anti-Semitic neo-Nazi group. 
        The NGO Monitor report sparked stories in the Telegraph in London, the Jerusalem Post and other media. Duke himself happily entered the debate, supporting the authors of the Gaza letter: “The Jewish extremists are stunned by the bravery of these medical professionals” to speak out against Israelis who believe they have a “God-ordained right to murder the hated Goyim,” Duke wrote on his website.
David Duke
       Duke, who has run for president, has been credited in some media reports as having put a modern face on white supremacy, exchanging white hoods for business suits. He has said his movement wasn't “anti-black” but “pro-white” and “pro-Christian.”
        Indeed, the homepage of has no diatribes against blacks, focusing instead exclusively on Jews. One Duke report: “Horrors of ISIS Created by Zionist Supremacy.”
        While these storms were raging, Epstein in Miami was among the many trying to figure out to respond. Like many Jews, he was upset by the intrusion of a medical journal into politics, particularly since the Gaza letter made no mention of Hamas and its attacks on Israel.
       One of Epstein's exchanges was with Karl Skorecki, a longtime friend who is a nephrologist at the Rambam Health Care, which includes a thousand-bed teaching hospital in Haifa and has a diverse staff. “For example,” says Epstein, “the chief of nephrology is an Arab Muslim woman.”
        Epstein and Skorecki decided that a drawn-out boycott against the Lancet was likely only to increase anger and not accomplish much. Their conversation shifted toward inviting Richard Horton, Lancet's editor, to visit the Rambam campus, talk with the staff and see for himself a side of Israel that perhaps he didn't know about. Epstein says he helped draft the invitation to Horton.
Editor Richard Horton speaks in Israel
       Horton accepted. In late September, he visited Rambam. After listening to the staff and others, he gave a talk on the campus, rebroadcast onYouTube. “I need very honestly to set the record straight with you. First I deeply, deeply regret the completely unnecessary polarization that publication of the letter ... caused. ... Second ... I was personally horrified at the offensive video that was forwarded by two of the authors of that letter. The world view expressed in that video is abhorrent and must be condemned and I condemn it. I have made that view, my view, very clear directly to those two individuals.”
       Epstein, who says he's seen email exchanges between the Lancet editor and Rambam staff, is “convinced that Horton had an epiphany, just like on the road to Damascus, there was a change, a realization.” He says he was told that Horton was most impressed by going on rounds and seeing patients like a young Syrian who had arrived from the war-torn country with a badly injured face.
        Duke's reaction: Horton “prostrated himself before the Zionist powers and begged for forgiveness.”
        As this post is published, Horton's apology at Rambam has been seen 4,000 times.
        Duke's video on the Zionist media conspiracy has been viewed 740,000 times.