One of the most remarkable features of the Answers in Genesis (AiG) tourist site, Ark Encounter, is that, for a place that loudly and boldly proclaims itself as committed to the notion of biblical inerrancy, they make great use of what they call “artistic license.” For example, while there is no discussion in Genesis 6-8 regarding Noah’s family, Ark Encounter devotes a large section to the ark’s “living quarters,” including vivid descriptions of Noah’s daughters-in-law – ethnicities, hobbies, and the like – despite the fact that there is no mention of them in the Bible.
Interestingly, Ark Encounter’s “artistic license” is not limited to exhibits. See, for example, Ken Ham’s ongoing massaging of attendance numbers.
A little context is helpful. While commentators often focus on the tourist tax rebate that Ark Encounter receives from the state of Kentucky, the big gift that the Ark has received comes from Williamstown, a sleepy town of 3,952 just down the road. In hopes of spurring development in the town, in 2013 Williamstown awarded Ark Encounter $62 million in Tax Incremental Funding. What makes this deal especially sweet for the Ark is that, for the next thirty years, 75% of what the tourist site would have paid in property taxes will go to paying off these bonds.
To help convince Williamstown to issue bonds and forego a huge chunk of property taxes, Ark officials produced a feasibility study in which they asserted that the Ark would attract 1.2-2.0 million visitors in the first year. Even more striking, the feasibility report predicted annual attendance increases averaging 7% per year for the first ten years.
Within a few weeks of the Ark’s July 2016 opening, many observers suggested that these projected attendance numbers were inflated, perhaps significantly. Ham responded by doubling down, claiming that first-year attendance would be well over the minimum projection, approaching or even surpassing two million.
Through the summer and fall of 2016 Ham resolutely held to these attendance claims. But in May 2017, Ham announced that the Ark’s first-year attendance would be one million visitors. While he failed to acknowledge that this was but 50% of what he predicted just nine months before, he did claim that attendance would double in the Ark’s second year.
We are now at the end of the second year. And new sets of numbers have emerged, as Ham has just informed the Cincinnati Enquirer that one million people visited in 2017-2018. Not surprisingly, Ham again failed to acknowledge that this number was but ½ of what he predicted a year ago.
But there is more. From the same article, Answers in Genesis (AiG) reported that the one million visitors in the second year marked a 20% increase in attendance from the first year.
What? Ark Encounter attendance in its first year was 800,000, and not the one million Ham previously announced? Given Ham’s looseness with numbers, why would he make this downward revision? Is the point to maintain the narrative that Ark attendance is increasing at a significant pace?
At the moment it is impossible to know the accuracy of these latest numbers. But the evidence is overwhelming that Ark Encounter is attracting visitors at a much lower pace than they claimed in the feasibility study that was used to convince Williamstown to float the $62 million bond issue and to give the Ark a huge 30-year tax break. And it is difficult to see how adding a 2500 seat “Answers Center” and expanding the petting zoo – “objectively describe[d] as tobacco country’s saddest zoo“ – and developing “tasty new food options” at the Ark will result in a marked increase in attendance.
Will Ark Encounter be around in, say, ten years? Five years? I have no idea. But if I were a bondholder or a Williamstown official, I would find it very worrisome that the reported attendance numbers are ever-changing, and apparently never as promised.