Off Limits

Up the creek

While Colorado's Ocean Journey is awash in financial woes, its founders are doing swimmingly. Back in February, William Fleming and Judy Petersen-Fleming, who created the aquarium and now serve, respectively, as its director of life sciences and its vice president for creative and strategic planning (at a reported salary of $122,000 each last year), bought a gorgeous five-bedroom, four-bathroom house right off Sloan Lake Park for $787,500 -- a bargain when you consider that the asking price was $825,000.

And even as the two-year-old aquarium struggles to stay afloat, the Flemings have been taking plenty of "vacation" time to do consulting work for the St. Joe Company, a gigantic Florida real-estate firm that's exploring an ecotourism investment called Florida Wild. Although contributions and sponsorship donations were down 50 percent in 2000 (when she was supposed to be coordinating Ocean Journey's development efforts), the recently promoted Petersen-Fleming has no problem defending the time they've spent on the consulting gig. "St. Joe asked us to come up with a creative concept for their million acres of land, and the [Ocean Journey] board encouraged us to do that," she says. "As far as missing targets last year, we were right on target except for one half-million-dollar pledge that didn't come through."

And, as she told the Rocky Mountain News last month, "The consulting work was all done on our own time. Bill and I had a lot of accumulated vacation from years we didn't take any while planning and building Ocean Journey."

But the way it's looking now, most of Ocean Journey's employees could have lots of free time coming -- all unpaid.

Two weeks ago, president and CEO Doug Townsend announced that -- oops! -- there isn't enough cash in the nonprofit's treasure chest to repay $120 million in debts to Ocean Journey's bondholders; he also said the organization would stop payments on $6.1 million still owed to the City of Denver, whose loan enabled the aquarium to locate in the Platte Valley.

Townsend's announcement came just after the landlocked aquarium revealed that it planned to renege on a promise it had made to early financial supporters: That Ocean Journey would not seek entry into the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which collects a .01 percent sales tax to help finance cultural organizations in the Denver area, until 2005. In a case of particularly bad timing, a letter from Townsend criticizing "speculation" about Ocean Journey's impact on the SCFD and assuring critics of his organization's "future viability" appeared in the News on July 11 -- the very day that Townsend revealed that the aquarium was up to its gills in bad debt.

If Ocean Journey is accepted into the SCFD early (after a hearing on the Ocean Journey application Monday, the SCFD board promised a decision by August 9), not only will other cultural groups that rely on the SCFD -- such as the struggling Colorado Symphony Orchestra -- get less money, but the aquarium will be getting more of yours. (It already charges a whopping $14.95 entry fee.)

Ocean Journey held a posh fundraiser on July 21, but the money raised that night is supposed to go to a program that funds admission for underprivileged kids who come to visit the fish house, rather than toward Ocean Journey's debt. The Flemings were front and center at the party, but, in another display of bad timing, Townsend was out of town for the event. Petersen-Fleming acknowledges that some people thought it was awkward that Townsend wasn't there, but adds, "He planned his trip to Hawaii a long time ago, and we had to force him to go."

When he returns, he'll have to figure out how to get Ocean Journey off the hook -- a mission that may involve teaming up with Six Flags Elitch Gardens, which is located just across the South Platte River. The aquarium's board of directors is reportedly talking with the amusement park's parent company about some sort of partnership or financial agreement, which could range from a land swap to an outright acquisition. But Petersen-Fleming denies this. "We haven't formally talked to them," she says.

Will the Platte Valley soon be filled by Colorado's Ocean Journey (barely) sponsored by Qwest (formerly US West) at Six Flags Elitch Gardens, to go along with our newly beloved Invesco Field at Mile High Not the Diaphragm? Shouldn't we just call the whole place the Toilet Bowl, since we keep flushing our tax dollars down the drain, and be done with it? No way, replies Petersen-Fleming: "Think about how many kids would never see the ocean if we hadn't raised $35 million for Ocean Journey. Through all the negativity and the rumors, we sure wish people could remember that the keepers of the environment are those kids."

If all else fails, Ocean Journey will just have to release its trout back into the Colorado rivers, from whence they came. And as for the tropical fish and sharks...

Fish fry anyone?


Happy daze: The Secret Society of Happy People will be happy when Governor Bill Owens is out of office -- and that's no secret. While much of the rest of the country is cheerfully preparing for Admit You're Happy Month, which begins August 1, Colorado will be left out in the cold. Again. The Irving, Texas-based Secret Society, which prides itself on sharing happy stories rather than gossip or bad news, is still saddened by Owens's two-year-old decision to rescind his official proclamation naming August 8, 1999, National Admit You're Happy Day in Colorado.

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