Longform

At Bayside, Ship Happens

Page 3 of 5

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."

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen