Cash-strapped Denver aquarium about to close

Tight economy has hurt many around country


DENVER - Ocean Journey, awash in debt, has announced plans to close after less than three years in business. Industry experts said it would be the first accredited aquarium in the nation to close. Others continue to struggle.

Ocean Journey has begun to search for new homes for three Sumatran tigers, two sea otters and 8,000 other fish and animals, even as the founders and employees hold out hope for a benefactor to rescue it.

"We're working awfully hard on trying to find a white knight out there to make this last-ditch effort," the chief executive, Doug Townsend, said.

The decision to close the $93 million aquarium on April 2 was made after failed efforts to find new financial support, including a bailout from the city of Denver.

"You can't make lemonade out of this lemon," Mayor Wellington Webb said after the city backed out. In a statement last week, Webb said, "It was difficult to justify using public tax dollars to save a private venture that carried $63 million in debt, particularly while the city is making its own budget adjustments as a result of the slowing economy."

Ocean Journey attracted 912,000 visitors in its first six months, in 1999, and more than 1 million in 2000, putting the attendance figure in the top 10 among the nation's aquariums. The aquarium had relied on attracting 1.1 million visitors a year to make debt payments, and its owners had promised not to ask for taxpayer support for 10 years. But when attendance dipped, to 742,554 visitors last year, the aquarium was $10 million short in ticket revenue and the owners defaulted on bond payments and sought taxpayer help and new benefactors.

From Valdez, Alaska, to Albuquerque, N.M., to Camden, N.J., many cities have begun to include aquariums in their plans for downtown, bay or riverfront redevelopment. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association in Silver Spring, Md., lists 36 accredited aquariums. It has a list of 11 unaffiliated aquariums and 31 in development. All aquariums rely in varying degrees on admission fees, taxpayers, donations and grants.

Ocean Journey, 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean, is like other aquariums that opened in the 1990s, with exhibitions on aquatic life in a nearby river or lake plus a touch of the tropics. An Indonesian River Journey includes the three rare tigers.

Some, like the 72-year-old Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, have laid off employees because of the recession and a decline in tourism after Sept. 11. The $84 million Florida Aquarium, which opened in 1995 in Tampa, changed from a nonprofit corporation to a public-private entity in 1996 and is now in the black, officials said.

The $52 million Camden aquarium had 1.2 million visitors its opening year, 1992, but that has dropped and hovered around 500,000. Officials fault a lack of nearby development. Aquariums are hybrids, often called "edutainment." Denver City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt suggested that the country might have too many.

"The boom years have passed," Barnes-Gelt said. "And when you think of core cultural values, do you think of an aquarium? I think of the symphony, the art museum, the ballet and the zoo."

Since the closure announcement, the lines at the Ocean's Journey entrance have extended down the sidewalk.

"It wasn't here for very long," said Eric Lumsden Jr., 11, who brought his father for a first-time visit. "It's like in the middle of the country, and there's no ocean here. I'll miss it. I liked the sharks."

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