Off the Deep End

Colorado's Ocean Journey is banking on expensive special effects to drive home its conservationist message.

Her development job, of course, no longer puts her in daily contact with animals--at least the kind without money. "I missed that more the first couple of years," she confides. "We had been with animals every day for our whole lives. When we first came back [from Asia], that's when it was really hard--because nobody knew what an aquarium was, nobody understood our passion to educate kids. It was hard in those days, because nobody thought it would ever happen."

Throughout the years of planning, the Flemings made contact with "another crazy guy who wanted an aquarium in Denver" --Jim Hekkers, a Colorado native who had left the state to join the marketing departments of the aquariums in Chattanooga and Monterey Bay. "In trying to get people interested in aquariums, I realized that at some point I'd have to go away," says Hekkers. "I didn't think it would happen in Denver."

But in 1997, Ocean Journey brought him back to be its second president. (The first, Jeff Dorsey, returned to head Columbia/HealthOne after just eight weeks. "Our first thought was to get a really strong businessperson in there," says Petersen-Fleming, "but then we realized it's more important to get someone who's in love with aquariums.")

Now Hekkers oversees the day-to-day operations of the facility and still writes a weekly column for the Denver Rocky Mountain News, an Ocean Journey sponsor. Petersen-Fleming makes weekly appearances as a "reporter" on Channel 9.

The Flemings both say they wouldn't want the aquarium's top job. "It's a big job, and [Hekkers] doesn't sleep all that well," says Fleming, whose curly, graying hair drapes over the collar of his fleece pullovers. "We wanted to focus on our original concepts--the animals, the integrity. Those are the things that we believe in the most."

"I think you would kind of stifle or suffocate me if I had that role," adds Petersen-Fleming, who sees herself more as a creative visionary than an administrator. "We didn't have a family when we started. We weren't even going to have children until this thing opened--but our kids [now ages two and five] had other things in mind. If we didn't have this incredible staff and the leadership of Jim, we wouldn't have a life outside of Ocean Journey. I think we have the best of both worlds. We have our two daughters--and if you want to know the truth, they're our priority."

But Petersen-Fleming still talks about Ocean Journey like a parent, referring to it as "this other giant baby that we've gestated for eight years." When the aquarium doors are opened and the newest Fleming baby begins interacting with the world, she admits, she'll probably experience some postpartum depression.

Ocean Journey promises to announce its exact opening date at least one month in advance. In the meantime, the Denver Zoo is bracing for a temporary dip in admissions, says spokeswoman Angela Baier. The 103-year-old zoo pushed back opening day for its Komodo Dragon exhibit from the summer to November 10, "to give the aquarium its time in the sun and not to go head-to-head with that competition," she says.

Thanks to the mild winter and publicity surrounding the births of polar bear cubs Berit and Ulaq, zoo admissions are already up 15 percent this year, says Baier. Five years ago the zoo opened its own answer to an aquarium: the Tropical Discovery building, a collection of exotic snakes, fluttering bats and brightly colored fish in a jungle-ized environment.

Still, a visit to the zoo and Ocean Journey are very different experiences, Baier says. "The aquarium is an intimate indoor experience. The zoo is eighty acres outdoors, with larger animals. People can ride a train, pack a picnic, let their kids run. It's like Montana versus New York."

"It's unfortunate in some ways that nonprofits like this rely on admissions so heavily and you end up looking at things competitively," adds Hekkers. "We're all in the same arena; we're trying to reveal the natural world." Hekkers has sat down with his management counterparts at the zoo and the Denver Natural History Museum. "They've been really supportive. They probably worry about an attendance impact, but I think in the long haul, it's more like the pie grows bigger for Denver rather than you split the pie up."

The Ocean Journey slice of the pie seems very hot. The aquarium is already "pretty much booked through the summer" for evening corporate events, "and we've had a lot of inquiries about weddings and wedding receptions," says Hekkers. Guests at the opening gala will be able to bid on a millennium party package at Ocean Journey for New Year's Eve. Veteran sports marketer Mike Blake, formerly with the Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Avalanche, heads up the aquarium's publicity department.

Petersen-Fleming envisions an active education program at Ocean Journey complete with all-nighters where kids can lay their sleeping bags over windows in the floor that reveal nurse sharks swimming below. In the building's design phase, "the structural engineers kept telling us that we couldn't walk on sharks," she says. But she repeatedly sent them back to the drawing board. "That taught me," she says, "never to take no for an answer."

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