CINCINNATI -- Jungle Jim’s International Markets is working on a multi-million dollar expansion project that would add new retail space and refinance debt from Union Township’s 2011 acquisition of the former Bigg’s Plaza near Eastgate Mall.
Township trustees authorized the creation of the Jungle Jim’s Economic Entertainment District in July. The Clermont County Port Authority authorized a $24.5 million bond issue for the project September 4, according to documents obtained by WCPO.
Clermont County Economic Development Director Andy Kuchta, a Port Authority board member, confirmed the township is working to issue bonds by Thanksgiving.
“It’s going to be a fairly complex deal,” he said. “We’re working through all the paperwork right now.”
Union Township Trustee Tim Donnellon said Jungle Jim's is looking to make theater upgrades and lure new out lot tenants to the site. The store is celebrating its one-year anniversary this week.
Jim Bonaminio, the Fairfield businessman who founded Jungle Jim’s in 1971, told WCPO in an exclusive interview Tuesday that an expansion was in the works. But he declined to provide details, including the scope of the expansion.
“It’s not that it’s so big and secret but … it’s like school taxes,” he said. “Some people don’t want it. Some say we need it. So, why bring it up?”
Deal Has Critics
Union Township Administrator Ken Geis told township trustees in July that the improvement district allows for payments in lieu of property taxes to be collected on the Jungle Jim’s site to “pay for public infrastructure improvements,” including financing, utilities and “the general welfare of the site.” The special assessments could be used for multiple purposes, including “placing real property in use for commercial or industrial purposes including the acquisition or improvement of facilities.”
Port Authority documents indicate bond proceeds would be backed by special assessments and non-tax revenue such as lease payments, from the 41-acre retail site. The real estate itself is pledged as collateral for the bonds.
Kuchta said his understanding was that bond proceeds will be used for store improvements, including freezers, HVAC systems, roofing and a retail expansion of the Jungle Jim’s property.
Jungle Jim's would pledge a personal and corporate guaranty for repayment of the bonds, according to the Port Authority records, which were obtained by the Clermont Liberty PAC through an Open Records request and provided to WCPO. Clermont Liberty PAC is a Tea Party group whose treasurer, Stuart Kennedy, has criticized the public financing of Jungle Jim's Eastgate.
Kennedy has argued in blog posts that the home improvement retailer Menard’s was close to buying the vacant Bigg’s property before the township struck a deal with Jungle Jim’s.
"I'm glad Jungle Jim's is here, but I'd prefer they borrowed their money from a bank," Kennedy said Wednesday.
Township official: Store Has Attracted Other Business
The Jungle Jim's expansion has made its way quietly through government approvals. Meeting minutes show the $24.5 million bond issue was approved in executive session. Jungle Jim's is not named in the minutes, but the site is identified by its parcel ID in Clermont County real estate records.
Geis said the Jungle Jim's Eastgate store led to the recruitment of new retailers in the Route 32 corridor and helped the township attract an upscale apartment project and Children’s Hospital Medical Center expansion nearby.
“It’s a regional destination,” he said. “It’s provided another opportunity for people to come into that area. It’s not only been good for the township but the region.”
The Eastgate store has drawn customers from 38 states and regularly draws shoppers from Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville and Lexington, according to data supplied by the company.
Donnellon said the store is in line with employment projections provided to the township in 2011 and above projections in earnings taxes being paid to a Joint Economic Development District tied to the site. The 650 employees who work at all retail locations there pay more than $100,000 in annual taxes, which is $30,000 more than originally expected, he said.
"Not only has it brought jobs and business opportunities within the district, but it’s also impacted positively all of the surrounding properties," Donnellon said in the July 11 trustee meeting where the new special improvement district was authorized.
Trustee Matt Beamer added: "Obviously, economic incentives do work. It's been a win-win."
Bonaminio: 'Just Go For It'
In a wide-ranging interview Tuesday, Jim Bonaminio said the store does about half the traffic of his original Fairfield store. That 300,000-square-foot store draws about 80,000 shoppers weekly and generates annual revenue of about $90 million, according to the Cincinnati Business Courier.
"It will take time for shoppers to reorganize their coveted shopping patterns," said the company in an email response to WCPO questions. "It is really important to educate customers
about how best to take advantage of all the selection we carry. The Jungle can be very overwhelming, so just like in Fairfield, customers will have to get used to having so much at their fingertips."
The Eastgate store takes the same approach as the Fairfield monster that Bonaminio created over 35 years ago, with more than 150,000 items for sale and over-the-top store displays intended to entertain shoppers and keep them in the store as long as possible.
Initial projections called for the 215,000-square-food Eastgate store to draw up to 100,000 shoppers a month. It has so far averaged less than 40,000. It started with nearly 400 employees but now has 325. Bonaminio said the store could take up to three years to fully develop.
He also said road construction at the Route 32 interchange off I-275 has kept some shoppers away. The company is planning an advertising campaign to promote the Eastgate store and Bonaminio said it will continue to alter its product mix to attract new customers.
“We’re gonna pound it and pound it and pound it,” he said. “When the roads get better you know what’s gonna happen?”
He answered his own question by smiling and giving the thumbs-up sign.
“You don’t cry about things, you just go for it,” he said.