A Daunted House
Mark Poutenis

A Daunted House

Ocean Journey is like a ghost town these days. The aquarium just suffered the slowest month ever, and what's even spookier is that attendance isn't expected to pick up until March.

Just 40,440 people visited Ocean Journey in September, compared to 65,775 last September and 98,324 during the same month in 1999. The organization had expected waning attendance after the first-year novelty of the place wore off, says spokeswoman Kimberly Thomas, especially in September -- a typically slow month for any institution geared toward children.

But not this much.

The drop in attendance between August and September, when kids return to school, was even more significant, sinking 43 percent, compared to 35 percent during the same time period last year. In addition, the aquarium experienced a 40 percent drop in revenue from August.

Ever since Ocean Journey was denied entry into the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District in August, the aquarium has been fielding inquiries from people wondering if the place is still in business. "I can understand the confusion," Thomas says. "It was a rough summer, and we made a lot of announcements."

Whether the September 11 terrorist attacks contributed to the attendance dip is anyone's guess. Fall and winter attendance at the aquarium has always been low. But the slimmest month in 1999 was December, when 86,039 people showed; last year it was November, with 54,250 visitors. "We usually get a little bump in December, when kids are on break, but our attendance really spikes in March and then again in July," Thomas says.

To attract more visitors this month, Ocean Journey was originally planning to take advantage of the October crowd at the adjacent Children's Museum, which for the past sixteen years has hosted a Halloween event called Trick-or-Treat Street; Ocean Journey approached the museum in early September about doing a joint promotion. The idea was for the aquarium to mention Trick-or-Treat Street in ads for its new exhibit, What Lurks Beneath. In turn, the museum was going to hand out Ocean Journey coupons to its trick-or-treaters.

But early this month, after the September attendance figures were calculated, Ocean Journey executives realized they needed to focus on driving people directly to the aquarium, so they called off the collaborative effort, says Karen Parker, Ocean Journey's director of marketing and corporate alliances. "In the past, when we've directed people to other places to get discount coupons, we'd only get a fraction of the business back," Parker points out. "What we were really doing was driving business elsewhere."

Instead, Ocean Journey decided to concentrate solely on promoting its own Halloween activities. Through November 4, it is offering free admission to children wearing costumes; in order to get in free, however, each child must be accompanied by a paying adult. To further tempt youngsters, What Lurks Beneath, which features sea animals that live beneath fishing wharves, will be decorated for the holiday, and volunteers will hand out candy and prizes.

Children's Museum spokeswoman Wendy Holmes says that although she's not upset by the cancellation, she was somewhat surprised by it. "They told us that since they opened, they've watched thousands of people bypass them and come to us for Trick-or-Treat Street, so they called us and said they had an idea for a way to collaborate for Halloween," she says. "They had what I thought was a great idea. We didn't feel threatened by it at all, because we serve a younger audience. It would have helped them, and it would have added value to our event. But on the day that we were supposed to meet to finalize the plans, they called us and said they were just going to do their own thing."

This isn't the first time Ocean Journey has gone back on its word. In February, the aquarium announced it would seek SCFD funding in order to refinance its bond debt; that news came as a surprise to other cultural institutions in Denver, because Ocean Journey had promised two major donors that it wouldn't apply for taxpayer support until at least 2004. (The SCFD is a special tax district that voters approved in 1988; a 0.1 percent sales tax benefits more than 300 scientific and cultural organizations.)

Shortly before the SCFD's board of directors was scheduled to vote on Ocean Journey's application, the aquarium made another startling announcement: It wouldn't be able to make payments on $57 million in bond debt, and it would have to default on a $6.1 million loan from the City of Denver. In August, the SCFD board voted against admitting the aquarium, saying it would be fiscally irresponsible ("Swimming With the Sharks," August 9).

Although Ocean Journey CEO Doug Townsend has said that suing the SCFD in response is "an option that is available," the aquarium has since backed away from that stance. The organization intends to reapply for SCFD funding next year, despite a warning from the SCFD's attorney that it still won't be eligible for taxpayer money because of its earlier promise not to apply until 2004.

Ocean Journey executives hope that by having some of their debts forgiven, they can prove to be a more financially solvent organization in time for next year's SCFD application deadline. They've even retained Ocean Journey boardmember Steve Farber, one of the best-connected attorneys in Denver, to help broker negotiations with the city and with the bondholders.

In the meantime, Ocean Journey will continue to work on a boosterish campaign to assure the public that all is well despite poor attendance figures. The aquarium recently began airing television commercials promoting its new exhibit and will introduce more holiday-related promotions this winter.

"I'm not worried about all the calls we received from people asking if we're still open, because we were able to tell them that we are," the aquarium's Parker says. "I'm worried about the calls we didn't receive. We want to dispel the perception that we're not open and create a new perception, which is the reality that we are open."


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