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Doug Robinson: The Loveland Living Planet Aquarium: A 17-year odyssey

Published: Monday, May 26 2014 12:34 a.m. MDT

He sent resumes to every college that had an ocean, a marine biology program and a biotech firm nearby. He found all of the above at the University of California-Santa Barbara. At 23, he packed up an old Toyota and drove to California to begin a new job and pursue an education. He worked for Dako, a Danish biotech company that specialized in cancer research, while earning a degree in marine biology, but positions in that field were difficult to find.

He had a good job at Dako, mixing chemicals and working out of an office that overlooked the beach, “but I still wanted to do something in my field,” he says. He stumbled into a quote by televangelist Robert Schuler — “What would you attempt to do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” The answer, he decided, was to build aquariums. He pitched the idea to the Santa Barbara Zoo, which agreed to let him build a small aquarium there, but not the large one he envisioned. “Why not build one in Utah?” a friend from home asked him.

After forming a nonprofit group, he quit his job in 1998 and moved back to Utah to do just that. He was 33 years old. For the next few years he lived a spartan existence while trying to find donors and raise funds to build the aquarium. It was a tough sell. Andersen had never run a business and had never built a full-scale aquarium. “All indicators were that I can’t do this,” he said. “I believed I could.”

He was single and subsisting on the standard college diet of Ramen noodles and peanut butter. When letters arrived offering him a free credit card and instant credit, he eagerly accepted and soon racked up $37,000 in credit card debt. One of those letters arrived with a blank check offering up to $5,000. He wrote a check for $4,800. There were times he could barely pay his rent and employees.

“Are you nuts?” his friends would say. “You gotta get your career on track at your age. Quit messing around with this aquarium stuff. Get married and get a job.”

As Andersen recalls, “So many times I was down to a few hundred dollars in the bank. By 2003, I started to think it’s not going to happen. I didn’t know much more energy I could put into this. It was so hard for so long.”

He changed tactics. He decided to build a temporary, small aquarium to prove to investors that a large, permanent facility would work. He was able to raise money for the project; all that was needed was a location. Andersen told the Boyer Company, developers of the Gateway Mall, that he wanted to build his aquarium at Gateway — and, by the way, he couldn’t pay rent. He was given the space anyway. In 2004, he opened a 10,000-square-foot aquarium at a cost of $330,000.

The aquarium was an instant success, with long lines out the door every Saturday and a half-hour wait to get in. Customers were asking for more. After 16 months in business, Andersen began shopping for another location for a bigger aquarium. He was advised to find a downtown location, but property was too expensive. He settled on a 43,000-square-foot former grocery store in Sandy. It cost $1.4 million and opened in June 2006. Business skyrocketed, from 150,000 visitors at Gateway to 250,000 visitors the first year in Sandy. Wait till the novelty wears off, skeptics told Andersen. A year later there were 460,000 visitors and more long lines and more customers asking for more.

Andersen learned later that donors were watching all of this closely to see if a large aquarium could make it. This included officials from the Loveland Foundation, who, noting the success of the aquarium, were now ready to commit to the large-scale aquarium Andersen had struggled to fund for years. They offered $2.5 million, and other donors, seeing this, suddenly had the confidence to come up with the rest of the money.

“All those people took a chance on me,” says Andersen.

Andersen, who had traveled to various aquariums throughout the country over the years to collect ideas for his own aquarium, spent months designing his dream facility and finding ways to save money. Consultants told him it would cost $45 million to $70 million. He built it for $25 million by making hundreds of cost-saving decisions. He learned, for instance, that if a 21-foot building is shortened by one foot, contractors can use five sheets of wallboard instead of six.

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