Captain Courageous

Miami's notoriously dirty, crime-ridden river is flowing a little cleaner these days thanks to Coast Guard Capt. Dave Miller

Marine Group members attended but their distrust was palpable, recalls Miller. Their relationship with government agencies, especially with the Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management, had become bitter over the years. DERM, citing river pollution, had forced the closing of many venerable companies. The maritime companies became even angrier when they learned in May 1996 of a bill quietly introduced in the state legislature. That proposal, presented by then-Rep. Bruno Barreiro, would have created a river authority run by bureaucrats, similar to the oversight group that the grand jury recommended in 1992. The legislature's tourism committee also wanted to study the river's potential as a tourist attraction. The Barreiro bill stood little chance of passing, but the Marine Group sensed enemies closing in.

For Miller, it couldn't have come at a better moment.

At the meetings, Miller discerned the waterway's basic political conflict: maritime business versus development of pricey condos and tourist destinations. John Lambrakopoulos, executive vice president of Bernuth Lines, one of the largest shipping agencies on the river, expresses one point of view. Lambrakopoulos, age 40, is a native of the Greek island of Kalymnos. Bernuth is owned by Jordan Monocandilos, also a Greek and a former sea captain turned shipping agent who came to Miami in the 1970s. Bernuth holdings now include five shipping terminals and nine ocean-going vessels. The firm employs 140 people and runs a highly computerized operation in modern offices at NW 32nd Avenue and the river.

Lambrakopoulos has a reputation for his visceral defense of the maritime industry. He and other Marine Group members make no attempt to hide their intense concern about outsiders who may have designs on their valuable riverside property. "You never know who might be lurking out there," he says suspiciously.

On the other side of the argument Miller found Sallye Jude, a grandmother and the owner of the Miami River Inn. The 40-room rustic hotel looks like a mirage below the NW First Street bridge on the river's south bank. A group of nine neat, wood-frame buildings surrounded by gardens, the inn appears to be a transplant from the Napa Valley.

Since 1990 Jude, also a historical preservationist, has operated her hotel despite the river's high crime rate. She complained to Miller about thefts, garbage, and commercial vessels blowing their whistles late at night. Jude got little sympathy from the Marine Group. In 1997, for instance, maritime contractor Dick Bunnell declared that any attempt to gentrify the river should be opposed. "Whatever the agenda, we must seek it out and destroy it," he said, sounding like a submarine commander under attack.

"[The Marine Group] acts as if they own the whole river," Jude complained at the time. The two sides had nothing to say to each another.

But Miller was able to bring together Jude and the Marine Group. In September 1996 he formed a group called the Quality Action Team to tackle the river's problems; it comprised government agencies, river residents, and business people. "The idea is to put people in the other guy's shoes," says Miller. "Sallye Jude asked at one point that the river be closed to commercial traffic at 7:00 p.m. so that it wouldn't be so noisy. Maybe she didn't understand that those boats have to move with the tides and that would be a hardship. At the same time, the businesses need to listen to her problems because there is room for her business as well on that river."

He used intermediaries like Bohnsack to gently persuade the Marine Group to cooperate, stressing that he didn't want to issue orders. He also knew they were worried about a river authority. "I wanted them to know what might happen if they couldn't work out their differences. I wanted them to act in their own best interest," Miller says, with a hint of mischief.

Today Lambrakopoulos, while still wary of possible enemies, says he sees "no reason why a hotel can't exist on the river." He lauds Miller as someone who understands the needs of maritime commerce. Jude thanks Miller for securing her a seat at the table with the big boys.

And the two sides will likely continue to cooperate. The 1998 legislature created a new body, the Miami River Commission, an eighteen-member board that will include river residents and business people. Backed by both public and private money, the new group will guide cleanup and development of the river. Its first meeting is scheduled for August; a representative of the Marine Group will participate. Jude may also be chosen. And Miller, now that he is retired from the Coast Guard, has been mentioned as a possible executive director of the commission. Miller won't comment on his plans.

At a July 11 reception honoring Miller, he received government proclamations and gifts from Tiffany for his service. But he has not made everyone happy, not by a long shot. A subculture along the river that includes small-boat operators and companies is dying because of Miller's enforcement. Those people aren't saluting him.

The South River Pier Company is located on a canal near NW 32nd Avenue just off the river. Its offices are confined to two small rooms with scarred white walls that haven't seen paint in years. A faded map of the Caribbean is tacked up. A carousel holding rubber stamps sits on one of the three old desks covered with bills of lading and other papers. Records of each boat represented by the company are kept in three-ring binders stored in file cabinets. No computers. A dockworker's arms are liberally tattooed.

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