At Bayside, Ship Happens

Miamarina wants the raucous La Rumba party boat out. Its owners are crying foul.

It is about midnight on the Intracoastal Waterway and Moises Baez's baggy blue jeans are flopping as he and a woman in platform tennis shoes gyrate in a merengue on the crowded upper deck of La Rumba. Were it not for the blinding clusters of red, blue, green, and yellow lights spinning from the ceiling, they would have a spectacular view of the water. But this tour is not about sightseeing. La Rumba is, as the DJ says in Spanish, "your floating discotheque!" He takes a poll: "Let's hear it for Nicaragua!" People whoop. "Honduras! Mexico! ALa gente de Cuba!" More whooping. A salsa tune kicks in.

But the 65-foot passenger boat's hourlong voyage -- from its concrete berth on the seawall behind downtown's Bayside Marketplace, through Government Cut, and back again -- is almost over. Baez, a 21-year-old Dominican who grew up in the Bronx, does not know that the boat's tenure at Bayside may soon end. The city wants to evict La Rumba. "You crazy?" he blurts when a reporter tells him of the banishment effort. "The other boats are jealous. They don't have this great music. And look at these women everywhere! The prettiest girls are here. And it's the best porque somos todos Latinos!" he shouts ("because we're all Latins").

La Rumba and its occasionally rowdy crowds are an impediment to the waterfront's lavish future, contends Stephen Bogner, who oversees city marinas, including Miamarina at Bayside. If Bogner gets his way, La Rumba will soon be replaced by los ricos -- the rich. "I look out along that seawall and see beautiful mega-yachts, luxury private charter vessels," he says, scanning his empire from the second floor window of his Bayside office. Yachts would provide "a generous revenue flow," because the marina collects rent based on boat length, he explains. And because the opulent boats are aesthetically pleasing, their presence near the marina entrance will help attract others. "I want other boaters to say, 'Hey, that's a happenin' marina. Let's take a look.'"

After thirteen years of costly repairs and questionable management, Miamarina is poised to become a moneymaker for the city. A five-million-dollar renovation was finished last fall, and its 135 slips are an impressive sight for the ten million tourists and South Florida residents who visit Bayside every year. Bogner, an experienced manager who took over last October, is now at the helm.

Bogner had hoped to see a huge Caribbean yacht named Acqua Azzurra towering over the outer seawall this summer. He had also aimed to attract several other yachts and a parasailing operation. But last week the city commission delayed discussion of a new Miamarina master plan until September. Besides the commission vote and La Rumba, Bogner must also contend with a veritable battle royal among the other tour boats that haul tourists daily to see the not-so-natural wonders of Government Cut and the mansions of Star Island. Though the boats are unquestionably entertaining, a look at their recent history turns up nasty lawsuits, arrests for underage drinking, excessive noise -- and a fatal shooting. The FBI has been investigating the disappearance in the Bahamas of a tour boat employee. Welcome to Miamarina at Bayside -- "Miami's Touch of Class." At least that's what the brochure says.

For decades, class was far less important to marina denizens than fish. The basin was first dredged in the mid-Twenties to provide fill for construction of nearby Bayfront Park. Over the next several decades it harbored fishing boats. The most famous dock was Pier 5, which teemed with mariners hoping to hook a few tourists for a day of angling.

"The place has very fond memories, because it was a simple time," recalls historian Arva Moore Parks, who frequented the marina as a child. "You'd go to Bayfront Park, feed the pigeons, walk out on the pier, and look at the boats." People would go to the docks for fresh fish. Wooden passenger boats like the Jungle Queen took tourists for cruises on Biscayne Bay.

The charter fishing business dominated until the Maryland-based Rouse Company rocked the boats by proposing a $93 million waterfront shopping complex. When city officials informed boat owners they would have to relocate during mall construction, a group known as the Pier 5 Boatmen's Association sued. The city settled the suit by agreeing to give the 29 plaintiffs free dockage at the city-run Watson Island marina until a new pier could be built for them near the mall's north pavilion. That was finally completed in 1990.

Since Bayside's ribbon-cutting in 1987, the city has spent at least $8 million on marina renovations: $1.8 million at opening, $1.5 million for a new Pier 5 in the late Eighties, and $5 million for the latest renovations, which were necessitated by shoddy construction and Hurricane Andrew-related damage. They were completed last fall.

Exactly how much money the city has squandered on the marina is uncertain. In 1987 then-marina director Al Rodriguez estimated it had the potential to turn a $770,000 operating profit every year. It has earned far less. Miamarina ended fiscal year 1997 about $50,000 in the red but is expected to turn a profit this year.

Another kind of red had city officials and Bayside managers worried in 1996 -- the kind that spilled onto the concrete along the outer seawall on Halloween night. La Rumba's neighbor, the paddlewheel boat Miami Queen, returned from a jaunt through the Intracoastal Waterway about 11:00 p.m. As the captain eased the craft into its berth, two groups of young women onboard began fighting, according to a Miami Herald account citing witnesses and police. The melee spilled out onto the dock.

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