Off the Deep End

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By contrast, she recalls, timber company and big museum donor Weyerhauser told an environmental museum in the Pacific Northwest that it could discuss the issue of deforestation in other parts of the world, but not in Weyerhauser's own backyard.

Could the $93 million spent on Denver's newest tourist attraction have done more good for ecological projects in the field? "Possibly," says Kreps. But in order to keep generating money for environmental causes, "you have to educate people," she says. "Frankly, most people are not going to sit down and study this issue like academics or the people who work at museums and aquariums. So the question is, 'What are [Ocean Journey's] greater goals?'"

With the marketing buzz now reaching rainforest pitch, most of Denver is convinced that Ocean Journey will be a success. But it wasn't always that way.

Early donations paid for a staff, a marketing study and over $2 million in design costs. In June 1995, Ocean Journey bought seventeen acres of land for a mere $5 per square foot; the earliest contributors benefited from the area's "enterprise zone" status, which afforded them healthy tax breaks. But when Ocean Journey ventured into the bond market in 1995, buyers--spooked by the poor attendance at a new, debt-saddled aquarium in Tampa, Florida--balked.

A year and a half later, Thermo Companies, a downtown developer, backed Ocean Journey with a $17 million letter of credit. The Mayor's Office of Economic Development fronted a $600,000 loan, and the city guaranteed a ten-year, $7 million Housing and Urban Development loan for the aquarium--an odd use of federal housing funds, critics said. "Well, obviously HUD doesn't agree, because they lent us the money," Hinsvark responds cheerfully. In February 1997, bond buyers finally bit the bait.

"Bill and Judy didn't have the funds to build a for-profit facility like this," Hinsvark says. "They took an idea they loved, and in order to get it off the ground, they had to create a [nonprofit] company. In the process, they essentially orphaned their baby to a board. That takes a lot of faith." Today the Flemings--who lived and promoted their dream for eight long years--are listed as Ocean Journey's founders. As part of the aquarium's 140-employee staff, they no longer sit on the board. "They've made the transition real nicely," says Hinsvark. "And they have their respective important positions in the organization."

Bill is now Ocean Journey's curator of mammals. Judy is a corporate fundraiser. "You know what's kind of fun?" says Petersen-Fleming. "I guess I got good at this fundraising thing. I could never do it for anything other than this project that I'm so passionate about. But the more money you raise, the more things you can do to help us grow."

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."

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Gayle Worland