Lobbyist has become airport's unofficial czar on retailing issues

 

If the companies that sell food and gifts at Miami International Airport ever get in a dispute, there's one man they can call.

Not the airport director. Their lobbyist. Christopher Korge, fund-raiser extraordinaire and longtime friend of Mayor Alex Penelas, is the airport's unofficial retail czar, with all four major MIA concession clients in his portfolio. Korge says political connections have next to nothing to do with his success. "I am an expert in retail, " Korge said. "I understand the economics of it." Others say there's a lot more to it. "It really comes down to this: There are probably a dozen dealmakers in this town, then there are 30 or 40 wannabes, " said Maurice Ferre, a former Miami mayor and county commissioner. "The king of them all is Chris Korge. He's number one." A BIG ASCENT Korge has come a long way from his days as a $17,800-a-year assistant city attorney in Miami Beach. Now he drives a brand new Lincoln Navigator sports utility, sometimes wears Seal of the President of the United States cuff links ("a gift") and lives in a $1.3 million home in Pinecrest. An early supporter of Penelas, his lobbying influence has risen with the mayor's political fortunes. One of the top Democratic fund-raisers in Florida, he has raised so much money for President Clinton, Al Gore and the Democratic National Committee that Clinton gave him a hug during one fund-raiser. He's one of Gore's top two money men in Florida. Korge seems torn about his insider's status. He name-drops about his personal friendship with politicos - "I've had the President and vice president in my home" - even as he says he wants to spend less time on politics. He brags about his fund-raising prowess, then suggests campaign reform. "In my opinion, there are obscene amounts of money spent in local campaigns, " said Korge, who helped Penelas raise a record $2.4 million in 1996. "The best thing they can do is publicly finance campaigns." He says he has no interest in Washington lobbying and does not lobby Penelas. ' A REAL FRIEND' "Because I consider the mayor a real friend of mine, I feel I have an obligation not to impose on him with any business relationship I have with the county, " Korge says. But Korge, known for his aggressive lobbying style, has invoked Penelas' name in pushing his clients' causes, says Aviation Director Gary Dellapa. "Once in a while, he would suggest the mayor's office would be comfortable with doing something, " Dellapa said. "When I hear that I pick up the phone and say: 'Did you really say this?' " Dellapa said. "He's a lot of billow and bluster. He's just more aggressive than most of them." Says Penelas: "I've heard that many times, and I have expressed my displeasure on many, many occasions. "The airport director should damn well know that if Chris Korge or anybody else says that, to kick them out of his office, " the mayor said. "Gary knows me too damn well." Korge says he used Penelas' name in lobbying Dellapa once, two years ago. "I have never ever said that again." STAFF IS WARY But airport staffers are wary of Korge's power. John Van Wezel, a retired MIA staffer, said Korge's political strength was always weighed when airport staff sat down to discuss bringing in new shops to compete with a Korge client. "We talked about what piece we could give to [Korge clients] Sirgany, to reduce their level of opposition, " Van Wezel said. The plan to bring in competitors was eventually killed. "We were unsuccessful, obviously, " Van Wezel said. Even Korge's enemies respect his bulldog defense of his airport clients - particularly the Sirgany family, who control the bulk of MIA's newsstands and retail stores. Korge worked in the Sirgany warehouse as a teenager. For him, the Sirgany deals are personal. Where others see political insiders and out-dated stores, Korge sees an underdog local family producing outstanding results for MIA. He notes that the Sirganys have consistently produced returns higher than any other airport in the United States, even though the county refuses to invest money in upgrading their stores. He said the airport will lose millions a year if they dump the Sirgany management agreements and bring in leases on brand-name shops. Likewise, on the duty-free deal, Korge said the airport is blessed to have an "class A operator" willing to fork over 35 percent of sales, probably the highest in the country. "From the time I was young - maybe because I'm short - I always took bullies head on, " said Korge, whose driver's license puts him at five-seven. "I'm not going to allow someone to be pushed around when they have met everybody's expectations and more." Korge says he doesn't want new airport clients. He's says he's tired of the headaches. "Some smartass reporter like you will call and say I control the airport, " he said. "Which is bull--."

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