Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, the venerable publisher and theme park operator, is not accustomed to being branded the bad guy.
After all, says Peter Jovanovich, an executive vice president of the company, what could be less controversial than putting out textbooks or running a string of aquatic parks where whales jump out of tanks and kiss children?
Nevertheless, Jovanovich says, the company has found itself battling a villainous image since it purchased Marineland last Dec. 31 and then decided to shut it down.
"This is the worst public relations thing since (the company began) publishing books in 1919," he said in an interview this week. "We aren't used to getting nasty letters. We don't run acid pits. . . . It's been a shock to everybody" at the company. But the nasty image is something the company "obviously" earned, Jovanovich concedes.
Jovanovich, 38, a cum laude graduate of Princeton University whose father, William, is Harcourt's chief executive, has been put in charge of an in-house task force to repair the image and sell the valuable site of the closed oceanarium.
To that end, Jovanovich has been out stumping for Harcourt with the help of a public relations professional, attempting to explain the company's actions, satisfy its critics and end an episode in the company's history that went awry, Jovanovich said, when the firm underestimated the public's affection for the killer whales Corky and Orky.
"I don't know how to describe what happened to us. I keep going back to Corky and Orky."
In a lengthy interview, Jovanovich gave this account:
Harcourt initially purchased the park from Hong Kong-based Warwick International for $23.4 million with the idea that it would either operate it, perhaps as a "satellite" facility to its Sea World park in San Diego, or eventually close Marineland, which had been losing attendance for years.
Purchase Price Justified
Either way, the value of the land and the park's animals justified the purchase price, he said. But even if the park was closed, the company expected to operate it through this summer, its peak period for visitors.
But unknown to the company when it purchased the park, the 650,000-gallon tank that was home for Corky and Orky, the park's star attractions, was badly in need of repair, and on Jan. 20 the animals were moved to San Diego.
Harcourt dropped the ball by failing to explain the move adequately, which took place at night without notice, Jovanovich said. The California Highway Patrol insisted that the move be done at night so the slow-moving tank trucks would not tie up traffic, but to the public, it seemed sneaky, he said.
And the public outcry that followed eventually led to the company's decision to close the park.
"I think after the killer whales left, instead of knowing what (we) were doing, the company started reacting to each day's bad events," Jovanovich said.
"I think that if we had decided it was safe for Corky and Orky to stay in that pool, we wouldn't be here right now," he said in the interview at The Times' Torrance office. "It would be April (and) the park would be operating."
He discounted reports that the company, which has been thwarted in efforts to take more killer whales from the wild, bought the park only to acquire Corky and Orky for breeding. "They're very valuable, but I don't think anybody could just put out $23 million for two whales, both of whom are middle-aged or older," he said.
Jovanovich said that in the wake of the company's decision to close the park, it has received dozens of inquiries from prospective buyers of the 100 or so prime oceanfront acres. The company never intended to develop the land itself, he said.
'Several Good Offers'
"We have several good offers on the table right now and I expect that the land is going to be sold in the near future," Jovanovich said.
Although Rancho Palos Verdes officials, who were furious about the park's closure, have indicated that they will look closely at any development proposal, Jovanovich said several potential buyers are willing to take their chances with the city. The site is zoned for recreational and commercial uses.
Jovanovich also reiterated that the company is committed to establishing a marine animal care center in the Los Angeles area to take care of beached seals and sea lions, similar to a facility at Marineland. Harcourt has offered to build a new animal care center on three acres of the Marineland site--an offer the company estimates to be worth $750,000.
But neither the Rancho Palos Verdes officials nor the Citizens to Save Marineland--a group of about 200 who have sent pickets to march outside Sea World in San Diego to protest Marineland's closing--have jumped at the offer.
Proposal Being Discussed
A city spokeswoman said Wednesday that city officials are still discussing the offer. City officials have said that the proposal does not specify how the facility would be maintained.