Journey's End

The media outlets that helped Ocean Journey float aren't mentioning their roles now that it's sinking.

Both Channel 9 and the Rocky Mountain News have produced plenty of reports of late about Ocean Journey, which will close its doors on April 2 unless a rare form of aquatic life -- a well-heeled sucker -- decides to donate many millions of dollars to a joint that's gone from being an alleged point of civic pride to one of Denver's biggest-ever boondoggles in record time. But what's been left out of these stories is the part these organizations played in Ocean Journey's creation. Simply put, the aquarium might never have existed were it not for their efforts.

An Ocean Journey timeline that accompanied a March 20 News story begins in 1990, when aquarium founders Bill Fleming and Judy Petersen-Fleming first doodled ideas for the facility on a napkin at a sushi bar in Japan. (Maybe this location explains why the idea never seemed fully baked.) After items about a 1991 feasibility study and a June 1994 loan from the city, the piece states that millions in donations from groups such as the Gates and Boettcher foundations and United Airlines poured in between December 1994 and March 1996.

But well before this time, Channel 9 and the News were already on board themselves. Both had ponied up around $250,000 for the cause and took an active part in touting the concept. For instance, an August 4, 1994, News account announced that its then-publisher, Larry Strutton, was a member of the Founders' Circle Committee, a collective "dedicated to raising the remaining $7 million Ocean Journey organizers predict it will need from private sources" that included Peter Coors, A. Barry Hirschfeld, Steve Farber and others with overstuffed wallets. Moreover, Channel 9 and the News were mentioned in article after puffy article about attempts to put Ocean Journey on the map.

Mark Poutenis

Such name-dropping was important at that time, because Ocean Journey wasn't the only fishy plan making the rounds: A rival gaggle of investors had proposed turning Littleton's Riverfront Festival Center, a failed mall, into what the News described as "the nation's first for-profit aquarium." But by lining up important media operations to stand alongside the city's power brokers, the Flemings were able to make their project look far more viable. By 1996, the Riverfront folks had thrown their support behind Ocean Journey; the mall was eventually sold to EchoStar Communications.

Once the Riverfront scheme was dead in the water, Channel 9 and the News pumped out an even steadier stream of pro-Ocean Journey hype, further blurring the line between information and advertisement. Along the way, pretty much the only discouraging words from either of these proud media partners came courtesy of News columnist Gene Amole, who has a history of opposing iffy developments with hefty price tags; he railed against Denver International Airport, too. In "Latest Attraction Could Easily Tank," a prescient bit of prose published on April 21, 1996, Amole noted that an aquarium on Florida's Tampa Bay built the previous year was already "awash in red ink. Attendance projections were overly optimistic. At first, they were off by 25 percent and then by 50 percent."

Sound familiar?

He added that "the Tampa situation is so serious that taxpayers may be forced to bail out the $97 million project" -- and as it turns out, they were. He subsequently asked if a Denver aquarium was "a good idea whose time has passed" despite corporate donors like "the Denver Nuggets, TCI, KUSA Channel 9 and (heh heh) the Rocky Mountain News."

Heh, heh, indeed. On June 22, 1999, News editorialists could practically be heard cackling throughout the ultra-gushy "Welcome Ocean Journey," which blared that "Colorado's Ocean Journey was well and truly launched Monday as the newest jewel in Denver's crown of civic attractions, scuttling for good all the carping critics who said it couldn't be done." (Never mind those who said it shouldn't have been done.) But more recently, on March 20, the editorial staff checked in with "Ocean Journey's Sad Farewell," which concluded with this wish: "Would that there were a philanthropist out there somewhere who would like to rescue the fish (and the otters and the tigers) for naming rights and the knowledge that he or she had done something of great value, if not great profit, for the children and adults of Colorado."

Of course, the News is no longer in a situation to step up to the philanthropic plate. As the junior partner in a joint operating agreement with its longtime foe, the Denver Post, the paper lost approximately $15 million last year. On top of that, the building it's called home for half a century is quietly being shopped around while representatives of the Denver Newspaper Agency consider other sites large enough to accommodate the DNA staff and those of the two publications. The best the News can offer is a virtual tour of the aquarium, which remains on its Web site. But for how long?

As for Channel 9, Ocean Journey apparently still regards it as a potential savior. On the first page of its Web site, www.oceanjourney.org, which is devoted to preserving this great white whale, a button allowing visitors to "contact 9 News" is above ones linked to the offices of Denver mayor Wellington Webb, Colorado governor Bill Owens and Denver's city council, none of whom have shown interest in swimming to the rescue.

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