By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Across the inner basin, along Bayside's south pavilion, floats Celebration, a 74-foot sightseeing boat featuring brunch and dinner cruises. Its owner, Mike Dudik, sued the city in 1995 after de la Torre had denied him dock space at the marina for two years. In a settlement, the city agreed to allow Dudik an inner-basin slip. He had to pay for dock construction.
Dudik thinks Bogner is continuing the unfair treatment of earlier years. The new marina manager's mega-yacht plan will prevent him from docking a second boat on the outer seawall, he says. "We have local boat owners who have been following the rules and regulations for years and trying to get dockage," Dudik fumes. "And now they are going to change the rules? I mean, hello? It seems like there are some serious under-the-table dealings going on here."
City employee Christina Abrams concedes that she can't be sure the marina was free from favoritism before she took over as public facilities director early last year: "Enough crazy things have happened in Miami over the past few years to make it possible. But at the same time we don't want to be intimidated. Every time someone threatens to call the State Attorney's Office or New Times, we give in. We really need to look at what's best for the marina."
Chuck Sofge seems to have fewer complaints than his competitors. He commutes weekly from his home in West Palm Beach to the Opa-locka or Tamiami airport in a twin-engine plane. Walk into Bayside's main entrance, head for the marina basin, and you can't miss the Island Lady, Island Queen, and Pink Lady. Sofge owns them all.
"Everybody's been screaming monopoly since I started," he grumbles. The Island Lady sails primarily on charter tours, while the other two vessels steam from the marina to Star Island and back eight to ten times per day. At night Island Queen and Pink Lady become discos like La Rumba. "I was here first," he insists. "Basically all I'm trying to do is produce what I promised, do the best job possible. We're currently trying to expand our operation. That's the American dream."
Sofge started out small. His first tour boat was the wooden Island Queen 2, which he bought in 1977 from his father-in-law. By 1988 he had made enough money to buy a new, much bigger tour boat, which he named simply Island Queen. By 1994, Sofge's fleet had expanded to three tour boats. In 1996 his brother Haley added another, the Bayside Blaster -- a cigarette boat for high-speed tours.
He has one distinct advantage over his competitors: a much longer lease. Because he was one of the 29 original members of the Pier 5 Boatmen's Association, he has twelve years to go on a twenty-year agreement. His membership in the group also helped him obtain his boats' prime locations.
Like many other successful business owners in Miami, the Sofges have also cultivated political ties with city commissioners and mayors, including J.L. Plummer and Joe Carollo. And they have contributed thousands of dollars to Plummer's and Carollo's campaigns. Those donations, Sofge says, were "strictly legitimate" and have nothing to do with his tour boats.
"I was not hoping to get anything out of it. I was just hoping to do my part for the city," he explains. "It was a situation where there was concern and care for the political people who were running, and they were doing a good job. Quite a few businesses in Miami contribute. Nothing underhanded was done."
Sofge says he just wants the best for Miamarina and Bayside. "There have been shootings out back and everything else. And we're trying to keep it so tourists can feel safe coming here. Keep downtown alive. Like a South Beach atmosphere."
Frustrated about her pending eviction, La Rumba owner Ilona Fortunato says the city is unfairly overlooking Sofge's skirmishes with police. "First of all, he's a drug addict. Then he likes to pick up prostitutes on Biscayne Boulevard. Then he got busted for having coke," she seethes. "Why does the city want to pick on people who aren't doing anything wrong?"
Sofge acknowledges he had a drug problem and was arrested several times, but says that is irrelevant to his tour boat business. His competitors bring up the problems because they envy his success, he argues. "It's like an Arby's that goes up against a Burger King. Arby's knows what they're getting into before they get into it."
Public records show Sofge has been arrested three times in Miami-Dade -- but not on one of his boats. He was arrested twice last year for driving recklessly in his BMW and then violently resisting arrest. In one of those incidents, which took place last August in front of Bayside, he was also charged with cocaine possession. This past April he was busted for soliciting a prostitute who happened to be an undercover officer. Sofge is awaiting trial on that last charge.
"I'm not proud of what happened, but it happened, and I took care of it," Sofge sighs. He says he left his company in the hands of his brother and other employees last year while he underwent drug treatment. "I'm just trying to make sure that every day is a good day."