At Bayside, Ship Happens

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.

Former Miami Queen mechanic Alejo Vazquez and his wife Yamilet Moreno were among the revelers. He grabbed one of the women who had apparently broken a window on the boat. The woman's brother pulled out a gun and started shooting. Vazquez was wounded; Moreno was killed.

The Miami Queen left the marina early this year. Though no one else has been killed near one of the tour boats, the shooting site remains a volatile and popular place. On weekend nights dozens of teenagers mill around, many of them La Rumba passengers. Occasional arguments are a spectacle for visitors from Pittsburgh, Portland, and Poughkeepsie. On a recent evening the driveway in front of La Rumba was packed with about 300 boisterous, cigarette-smoking kids. That is not the scene Bogner wants yacht patrons to wade through on the way to a luxurious dinner cruise. "You have a lot of gang wannabes out here," Miami Police Ofcr. Winsor Lozano observes. He scolds one young man for nearly bumping a pedestrian with his El Camino. But it's not all that bad, Lozano states. In the past six months police have made only three or four arrests for disorderly conduct.

Bayside manager Raul Tercilla doesn't care whether the shooting occurred on the Miami Queen or La Rumba -- both have been trouble, he insists: "Some of the kids are aggressive." Get rid of La Rumba and the crowds of youngsters will disappear.

La Rumba's problems with teenagers date to its first year, 1994. The business, whose boat cruises cost seven to ten dollars per hour, was started by Walter Fortunato, a 39-year-old Uruguayan. He drives a BMW and lives in a $240,000 home in Miami Beach. He remembers well the night of December 23, 1994, when police arrested his wife Ilona and an employee for selling alcohol to a teenager, who was working with agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Charges were dropped in April 1995 after Ilona completed a two-month counseling program. The city began its eviction effort that year.

On May 25, 1996, Walter Fortunato was arrested at the seawall and taken away in handcuffs for violating a noise ordinance. He pleaded not guilty and was acquitted. Six months later the Fortunatos received another eviction notice. The case has been tied up in court ever since. In June a Miami-Dade County Court judge told the city it could go ahead and kick out La Rumba. The owners appealed last week.

Citing legal matters, Bogner won't elaborate about La Rumba except to say, "We've got one tenant out there that the city is currently working to evict because of violations of rules and regulations."

Mike Brescher, vice president of the Marine Council, a local association of maritime industry professionals, disagrees. Over the past two decades he has managed several city and county marinas, including those of Pelican Harbor, Crandon, and Dinner Key. "La Rumba deals with noisy, rowdy kids, but it still should be allowed," he asserts. "It's not my type, but there are people out there who enjoy that type of boat."

If the city continues its eviction effort, Fortunato warns, he is prepared to go on a hunger strike to save La Rumba. "I'm going to do whatever is necessary," he declares. "I'll go to the White House if I have to." Fortunato insists the eviction and the police stings are part of a plot. The purported conspirators: former marinas manager Raul de la Torre, Tercilla, and Chuck Sofge, owner of Island Queen Sightseeing Tours, the biggest tour boat operation at Bayside.

The owners of other tour boats allege a similar conspiracy. One of them, Capt. Jim Lewis, owns the 46-foot neon-lit Fiesta, which was Fortunato's until 1994. The boat carries tourists to mansions that guides say belong to Elizabeth Taylor, Julio Iglesias, and other celebrities on Star Island. By night it becomes another floating disco.

The Fiesta occupies a central slip in the marina's inner basin. Lewis had to fight for that important spot, which allows easy access for tourists. Though the city gave Lewis rights to it in 1990, authorities allowed a fishing boat owned by a friend of Sofge to dock there in 1994. Two years ago Lewis sued to regain the berth. The city surrendered last year and let the Fiesta have the slip.

Lewis cites other examples of unfair treatment. In July 1996 Tercilla ordered Lewis to restrict ticket sellers to a designated site. Tercilla alleged that the Fiesta's music was too loud. Calling the boat "a nuisance," the Bayside manager tried to boot it out. Lewis and his wife Holly allege harassment and favoritism toward Sofge. Five Miami police officers confirmed that the Lewises had done nothing wrong. "At what point of corruption is this going to stop?" wonders Jim Lewis.

Tercilla insists he has done nothing to favor the Sofges, but he thinks there are too many tour boat operations. He likens them to pizza stands. "If I put ten pizzerias in the food court, I won't do as well as if I have maybe two," he submits. "The likelihood of those ten operations working out will be nil, and you'll have all sort of upset pizza makers offering samples in the common areas, pushing each other and hawking."

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."

Then there's the mysterious FBI investigation.
In 1996 agents began probing the disappearance of former Sofge employee Maureen Deulomnick, whom Haley Sofge says was his girlfriend at the time. She vanished from a beach on Big Harbor Cay in the Bahamas while on a fishing trip with the Sofges and several other people, according to Haley. "I have no closure," he says. "I had a girl that was in my life for quite a few years and disappeared on a fishing vacation over in the Bahamas." Adds Chuck: "We were questioned in the beginning, and we did all the homework and research and did everything we felt we could to find her. We were physically exhausted." Three other tour boat owners told New Times they were questioned by an FBI agent about Deulomnick last year. The FBI declined to comment on the probe.

Haley Sofge says some of his competitors have tried to implicate him in the disappearance. "That's a dirty rumor. That's a real nasty rumor talking about that," he snaps. "You're talking about a human being. You're not talking about business. You're talking about something personal."

Bogner would not comment on the investigation or Chuck Sofge's arrests. "How far into someone's personal life am I supposed to get?" he huffs. He adds that the Sofges are "model tenants" because they always pay on time.

For Bogner, changes at Miamarina are not happening fast enough. Now he's run into a delay at city hall.

This month, at Abrams and Bogner's request, interim City Manager Donald Warshaw asked commissioners to rescind the current requirement that commercial boat operators submit a "certificate of public convenience and necessity" when they apply for a dock lease. Among other things, the certificate asks applicants if they have a criminal record. In a memo to commissioners, Warshaw wrote: "The elimination of the certificate will relieve the City from determining the moral fitness and character of the applicant and, instead, evaluate potential operators' experience, operation, and revenue potential to the City."

The commission deferred action on the proposed change and on Bogner's master plan until a public hearing can be held. Because the commission is in recess during August, that will not happen until September.

Still, Bogner cites progress. The marina's manager observes that the section of the marina reserved for private pleasure boats is filling up. Of 45 slips in that area, 15 have permanent leases, compared to a mere 2 when Bogner arrived. "I'm trying to make this place as high-quality and competitive as the other marinas in the area," Bogner says.

But getting people to stop by Miamarina is not easy. On a recent weekend afternoon, Bogner crouched in his office, two-way radio microphone in hand, and looked through a window toward Biscayne Bay. He focused on a sports fishing vessel named Better Idea, which was towing a Jet Ski.

He called the Better Idea skipper. "Sir, we'll have somebody standing by on the dock, sir, to help you with your lines."

Soon the boat's big-bellied captain entered the office. "What a beautiful marina," he exclaimed.

"That's what I like to hear," said Bogner with a smile.
The man went outside to wait for some friends who would soon arrive in another boat. But a half-hour later, the Better Idea captain returned. He said he was at the wrong marina. His friends were at Watson Island.

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen