Longform

Off the Deep End

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A dynamic woman who wears cowboy boots with her jeans and sweaters, Petersen-Fleming has a way of getting people excited about an idea and a magic enthusiasm that plays well at presentations and fundraisers. Intuition told her to find "passionate people who also had some power." "Actually," she says, "it was a guy in Japan who told us, 'Find the best financial person and the best law firm you can, get them passionate about the project, and everything else will fall into place.'"

By the time Debra Hinsvark came aboard as chief financial officer in 1995, the Flemings and executive vice president Nancy Yelverton had built a strong board with some of the city's top movers and shakers, including chairman (and avid scuba diver) Bob Malone, the state chairman of U.S. Bank, and Dick Robinson, CEO and chairman of the board of Robinson Dairy.

"Because of that, we were beginning to get the corporate philanthropic community interested in us," says Hinsvark. Ocean Journey eventually netted about $30.5 million in cash pledges from businesses, foundations and individuals. Among the top contributors: United Airlines, Pepsi, the Gates Family Foundation, TCI/Bob Magness Family, the El Pomar Foundation and the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado.

By comparison, 159 science and art nonprofits in the six-county metro area received only $17 million in corporate cash sponsorships and in-kind contributions in 1997, according to a survey by the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.

"We have a lot of community support, so we have a lot of signs that say 'Gift of,'" says Hinsvark. "And I think that's really great."

In concept, the first Ocean Journey plan was very different from what was finally built on seventeen acres across the Platte River from Six Flags Elitch Gardens.

The Flemings originally wanted to focus on the Colorado River, which is the most intensely used river in the country, supplying water for 25 million people and 3.5 million acres of farmland. Western rivers are uncharted territory, at least in the aquarium business. "Nobody had looked at the river and drainage systems of the western portion of the United States," Bill Fleming says. "Our original concepts were: journey, flowing water, connecting people here in Colorado to the ocean to show them what we do here affects the oceans."

To keep the money flowing, however, Ocean Journey evolved into the story of two rivers--the Colorado and the Kampar, located on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

"What we learned from years of experience," Petersen-Fleming explains, is that "if we'd just shown our own backyard story, shown people how important the Continental Divide is, well--people get bored. They do. They need to see what's not familiar, what's super-exotic. So we decided to take them to the other side of the world. Everybody knows about the Amazon and the South American rainforests--but few people know that Indonesia has the world's second-biggest rainforest. It has more diverse animal species than anywhere in the world."

The Flemings wanted their nonprofit aquarium to carry a strong environmental message--but Colorado trout weren't sexy enough to do it alone. "Indonesia gives you some wonderful stories to tell," says Hekkers. "Any good teacher will try to find the most interesting thing to reach students. That's what we're trying to do.

"From the marketing standpoint, you're not going to get anywhere with gray and brown fish," he says. "It just won't work."

Yet the Tennessee Aquarium, which Hekkers helped open in 1992, attracts a million visitors every year just by focusing on the humble freshwater rivers of the South. And California's Monterey Bay Aquarium has been hugely successful featuring local cold-water fauna--"dull fish and algae," as one expert describes it.

Ocean Journey is banking on 1.2 million visitors in its first year--about the same attendance for the Colorado Avalanche and the Denver Nuggets combined--and about 1 million a year thereafter. Four out of every ten guests are expected to come from within a 100-mile radius of Denver; tourists should make up the rest. Over the past four years, the aquarium's price tag grew from $75 million to $93.7 million, thanks to higher construction costs, some additional high-tech gizmos, indoor and outdoor sculptures and increased financing costs, says Hekkers. To justify that kind of money, the Colorado River story must carve its own niche in the cultural-attractions landscape.

So although Ocean Journey is one of the few places to see Colorado's state fish--the threatened greenback cutthroat trout--the aquarium has added some frisky otters and Sumatran tigers Bali and Java as insurance.

"I think sometimes investment counselors and bankers think, 'Oh, we've got to get a tiger in here to really pack 'em in,'" says Leighton Taylor, one of the leading aquarium consultants in the nation. "Ninety-three million dollars is a lot of money to spend to show trout--I suppose that's what somebody told them."

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Gayle Worland