Published News

Rocky Mountain News - March 5, 2003

staff reports
Catch of the day

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Within minutes of the opening bid, the price for Ocean Journey's assets doubled. Then it tripled. To $13.6 million. And Denver's aquarium was bought by a restaurant conglomerate best known for seafood.

The polite bankruptcy court bidding war between Ripley, a company known for its oddities, and Landry's, a company that came in as an unknown, turned into a half-hour of $100,000-upmanship, broken only by short breaks.

During one, the dark-suited heads of each company smiled civilly and shook hands. Then, after 177 bids, the price hit $13.6 million. That was too rich for Ripley Entertainment Inc.'s blood, and the deal went to Landry's Restaurants, Inc. - lock, stock and fish food. "It went well past what we thought it should be," said Bob Masterson, president of Orlando, Fla.-based Ripley. "We were prepared to go a little higher," Landry Chairman and CEO Tilman Fertitta said. "My legs would have started bending at around 15 and 16 (million dollars), but we weren't there yet."

The sale to Landry's is expected to close today, and the aquarium will open its doors at 8 this morning as always. It will be at least a year before the attraction's name changes from Ocean Journey, the buyer said, and it may never change.

Landry's, owned by Houston-based Landry's Restaurants Inc., expects to spend $15 million to renovate the property, Fertitta said after Tuesday afternoon's hearing.

Renovations will begin in about six months and take at least a year, he said. "We feel like Denver's a great market, and the fact they had this wonderful, beautiful aquarium, well, we bought a lot for our $13 million," Fertitta said.

The company will add two full-service restaurants, one upscale and one more casual, he said, plus several amusements. He expects the facility to employ about 500. He said the 4-year-old aquarium will remain open during the renovations. Landry's managers interviewed Ocean Journey employees Tuesday afternoon, but it was not clear how many of the 95 workers the company would hire, he said. "A lot have already found other jobs and are leaving," Fertitta said.

Last month, Landry's debuted its latest project, a $38 million aquarium and restaurant complex in downtown Houston. The 6-acre complex has more than 200 species of sea life in more than 500,000 gallons of water.

In addition to watching the fish, visitors have their choice of dining, from the casual Marina Matinee -Cafe to the more upscale Aquarium restaurant. There's also the Dive Lounge, for cocktails, and the Ballroom, which can seat 600 for events. The company will look at adding a ballroom-type events facility at Ocean Journey, Fertitta said.

Fertitta, 45, started his company with one restaurant in 1988, took it public in 1993 and, largely through acquisitions, has expanded it to include 280 restaurants in 36 states, including 10 in Colorado.

Eateries include Landry's Seafood House, Joe's Crab Shack, The Crab House, Willie G's, Cadillac Bar, Charley's Crab, Chart House and Saltgrass Steak House. Landry's also owns the Rainforest Cafe chain, which closed its location at the Cherry Creek mall in 2001. And it owns another aquarium near Galveston, Texas.

Until this week, Ripley was the only known bidder for the assets of the not-for-profit aquarium, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on April 1, 2002. Ripley Entertainment Inc. announced in February it would offer $4.5 million for the bankrupt aquarium's assets. Under the asset purchase agreement proposed by Ripley, the company had the right to match any higher bid. Bidders' offers had to come in at least $100,000 more than the Ripley bid on the table. Fifteen entities expressed an interest in possibly bidding on the assets, but only Ripley's and Landry's made it to the table.

At Tuesday's hearing, Ocean Journey attorney Carl Eklund presented Landry's $4.6 million offer as the highest and best, and the bidding began there. Ripley is owned by privately held Canadian conglomerate Jim Pattison Group. It already runs aquariums in Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., both of which have nearby Ripley museums and other Ripley-owned attractions.

It was not clear Tuesday whether Landry's will need additional land for the Ocean Journey site. Last month, the city and county of Denver won the judge's approval to foreclose on three parcels of land that surround the aquarium. The parcels total 217,808 square feet. According to an appraisal done for the city last November, the property is worth about $4.55 million if sold separately and about $3.64 million if sold as a package. Fertitta said it's possible the company would be interested in acquiring the land. Ocean Journey Chairman Robert Hill called the outcome of Tuesday's hearing "a great emotional relief." "Now I get to go through as a tourist, just like everyone else," he laughed.

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