Citizen Kuhn: An up-close look at the man remaking downtown Orlando
Snow globes. Of all the things to find in here. Snow globes. But there they are, two of them, sitting on a conference table in the middle of the war room that passes for Cameron Kuhn's downtown Orlando office. Pick one up. Shake it as hard as you like. The miniature landscape never flinches. No matter how wild the tempest, the self-contained little scene remains the very picture of balance and serenity. Not like the world of Citizen Kuhn. Not like that world at all.

"Can somebody please tell me," Kuhn is roaring, "why we just gave up 5 million dollars? Will somebody please explain that to me?"

A half-dozen employees have gathered around their 46-year-old boss for a late-morning meeting in the sixth-floor Kuhn Cos. suite overlooking Lake Eola. No one has an answer to suit him. Now a staffer's oversight could shear away some of the profits from the company's latest deal: buying a downtown Jacksonville high-rise for $37 million and converting it into pricey office condominiums.

Kuhn is still steaming a few minutes later as he charges away from his building and across Central Boulevard toward a business lunch, a bullish man in casual slacks and a short-sleeved white shirt, hammy forearms jutting from his 6-foot-4-inch, 300-pound frame.

His brown eyes are close-set and intense. There's a deep, semicircular furrow across the bridge of his nose. He looks like an angry high-school football coach making a beeline for an errant player as he steps headlong into the street, barely glancing left or right, forcing the driver of a car about 20 yards away to brake.

Kuhn storms through downtown Orlando as if he owns it.

"Well," he says, momentarily brightening, "I do."

Since 1994 he has bought 27 office buildings in the city core, including the one he just stormed out of (bought for $3.1 million, selling for $8.5 million). Others have been renovated or torn down to make way for new developments.

He capped off the run two years ago by clearing away a city-block bramble of vacant and decaying buildings to build the Premiere Trade Plaza at Orange Avenue and Church Street. When completed next year, the complex of shops, restaurants, a multiscreen cinema and three office/residential towers of 16, 21, and 30 stories will mark a turning point in the most recent renewal of downtown Orlando.

The mastermind of all this is a free-thinking college dropout who wears a thin gold earring to work, lords over his empire from an overstuffed chaise longue next to his desk and once presented city leaders with a suggested blueprint for downtown development that featured a wave pool and skateboard park, all of it sketched in his own hand on a manila file folder.

Kuhn has nearly ridden out a wave he helped create. Office space in the city core sold for about $50 per square foot when he started buying buildings in 1994. Now it's up to $250. Other downtown building owners thank him for raising their property values and then ask: "Would you like to buy it?"

So Kuhn has embarked on a broader empire by snapping up and renovating office buildings in other urban centers: Jacksonville, Atlanta, New Orleans. Once, he ferried buyers and investors around downtown Orlando in a golf cart. Now he shuttles from one city to another in his new $1.75 million Bell helicopter.

He's a charter member of the Oak Room, a lushly appointed private bar on Church Street, past a door you'd probably never notice and up a staircase you'll probably never see, featuring a honeycomb of built-in, refrigerated lockers where private stashes of liquor and wine can be stored.

When he was invited to join, Kuhn had just one complaint: His locker was too small. He's having it expanded.

King Kuhn lives large.

The brash landlord

From a distance, he seems to fit the stereotype of the urban landlord as big and brash, filthy rich and coldly calculating.

He owns part interest in a yacht docked in the Virgin Islands, where he frequently retreats with business cronies and romantic interests. He drinks only the finest wines, traveling to Italy and the Napa Valley each year to sample and stock up. He smokes expensive Cuban cigars, mainly pre-embargo Gurkhas, $800 a box.

He once served an eviction notice on his own brother.