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Ark Encounter Attendance: The Controversy Continues | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Is Ken Ham’s Ark sinking? The controversy continues, despite the efforts of Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG) to put the matter to rest.

In an August 11 post we noted that Ark Encounter – located in the middle of nowhere – is much indebted to Williamstown, Kentucky, the sleepy town of 3952 residents located a few miles from the Ark:

“In the hopes that Ark Encounter would bring great economic benefits to the town . . . Williamstown granted Ark Encounter $62 million in Tax Incremental Funding. Over the next thirty years, 75% of the Ark’s property taxes will go toward repaying these bonds, and not to Williamstown.”

While Ham is silent on the topic, this is a sweet deal for the Ark, made even sweeter by the fact that – if the Ark fails to meet its projections – it is the investors and taxpayers, and not Ark Encounter, who are left holding the debt bag. And what were those projections? According to the feasibility study produced by Ham’s friend, Britt Beemer, the Ark will attract 1.2 million to 2.0 million visitors in the first year, with attendance going up annually after that.

Here’s how the attendance numbers break down:

1.2m/year = 100,000/month, 23,077/week, 3315/day

1.4m/year = 116,667/month, 26,923/week, 3867/day

1.6m/year = 133,333/month, 30,769/week, 4420/day

1.8m/year = 150,000/month, 34,615/week, 4972/day

2.0m/year = 166,667/month, 38,462/week, 5525/day

2.2m/year = 183,333/month, 42,308/week, 6077/day

Of course, this is a crude metric, given that these numbers do not take into account that – as with other tourist sites – it is very likely that Ark attendance will spike in the summer. It makes sense to assume that the weekly numbers between Memorial Day and Labor Day will be 1.5/2 times the weekly numbers the rest of the year.

We visited the Ark twice in July. The first was on opening day, and we were stunned to see no one standing in line to buy tickets when we left a little after noon as well as mostly vacant parking lots. The second was on Saturday, July 23; as we reported, we guessed attendance for the day to be 5000, which seemed very good until we took into account that this was a Saturday in America’s prime vacation month. And again, the two main parking lots were far from filled.

Of course, other folks have raised similar questions about Ark Encounter attendance. So how has AiG responded?

In the first few weeks Ken Ham made efforts to explain why observers might have underestimated Ark attendance. As regards what appears to be nearly empty parking lots, only half the space is devoted to cars, as the other half is available for “tourist coaches, larger vehicles, and so on,” – and anyway, the “parking lot was built with the ongoing expansion of added attractions to the Ark Encounter in mind.” Moreover, the Ark itself is so huge that it doesn’t feel overwhelming or crowded inside,” even if “there are thousands touring the Ark.”

But by mid-August Ham had decided to go after the naysayers. In his August 15 post, “Ark Encounter’s Impact – Responding to Misinformation,” Ham blasted those who suggest the Ark is “in the middle of nowhere,” pointing out that the “Ark is located . . . right at exit 154 on Interstate 75 – the second busiest north/south interstate in the United States.” While he claimed that “if we did release daily attendance figures” they would be “twisted and misquoted by secularists,” he went on to claim that “indications are that attendance will be well over the minimum of 1.4 million per year predicted . . . and closer to the higher figure [of 2.2 million]” (emphases ours). As regards complaints about the lack of development in the area – a point we had discussed four days earlier – the apparently exasperated Ham asserted that “developers and businesses [need to] listen to us and not listen to the continual stream of negative, false information from the secular media and atheist bloggers.” The fact is that “AiG has done what we promised to do with the Ark Encounter . . . It’s not the Ark Encounter that should be held accountable for what happens locally!”

Much of the controversy over Ark attendance is due to the fact that AiG has not released specific, verifiable attendance numbers. But now Ham and company have seemingly reversed their policy. In a September 15 newscast on Cincinnati’s WLWT a local reporter quoted AiG’s Mike Zovath as saying that “since July 7 [opening day] the number of people who have visited the Ark is around 300,000. And they are projecting 1.4 million for the year.”

Hmmmm. So for over two months AiG withheld attendance numbers, and then it gives them to a local reporter who spends his time gushing over the Ark? Given the controversy, why did AiG release these numbers in a local newscast, and not (as of yet) on their website? What kind of numbers are these?

But there’s more. What exactly is the math that gets you from the supposed 300,000 visitors between July 7 and mid-September to 1.4 million visitors in the first year? Is AiG really projecting there will be minimal drop-off in attendance between October and March?

Perhaps most important, what happened to Ken Ham’s claim – made just one month ago – that attendance in the first year will be closer to 2.2 million than to 1.4 million?

Will straight answers from Ken Ham and AiG ever be forthcoming?