by William Trollinger
To say that Ark Encounter is located in the middle of nowhere barely qualifies as hyperbole. 40 miles south of Cincinnati, just off I-75 at exit #154, the Ark is – as Jeff Vrabel writes in a hilarious and incisive GQ article – “the first left after the gas station, down the street from the Mexican restaurant.”
Two miles down KY-36 from the Ark is Williamstown, a sleepy town of 3952 residents. It had four hotels, but the Knights Inn has been shuttered.
Drowsy Williamstown has been very important to Ark Encounter.
In the hopes that Ark Encounter would bring great economic benefits to the town – through an influx of tourists and the development of hotels and restaurants and jobs for local residents – Williamstown granted Ark Encounter $62 million in Tax Incremental Funding (TIF). Over the next thirty years, 75% of the Ark’s property taxes will go toward repaying these bonds, and not to Williamstown.
As Tracey Moody reported on the financing of Ark Encounter, TIFs “can be a great help to the local economy if the development is a long-term success.” But if the development fails to meet projections (not to mention simply fail!), “the developers aren’t held liable for repayment and the burden of debt falls on the investors and taxpayers.”
So what were the Ark’s projections?
The feasibility study produced by America’s Research Group (ARG) – headed up by Ken Ham’s friend, Britt Beemer – to accompany the issuance of the bonds predicted that the Ark Encounter would “attract between 1.2m and 2.0m visitors . . . during the first year of operations” (A-38). In the “Comparable Attractions” section of ARG’s study one learns that that these projected numbers are equal or better than the 1.4m visitors who annually visit Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (A-35).
In other words, the bet is that Ark Encounter, located two miles outside of Williamstown, Kentucky and forty miles south of Cincinnati, will draw as many or more visitors than a world-renowned museum located in the third largest city in the United States.
Actually, the feasibility study made another bold prediction: the “first-year attendance scenario” will be “followed by annual attendance increases” (A-13).
Coincidentally, or not, Williamstown mayor Rick Shermer has expressed concern that – one month after the Ark’s opening, and at the peak of the tourist season – his small town is not seeing the promised economic benefits. Worse, none of the ballyhooed tourist developments have broken ground, as investors are apparently waiting to see if the small town and its Ark are worth the bet.
Of course, Answers in Genesis (AiG) could easily rebut the naysayers and give little Williamstown a boost. AiG could provide official figures proving that the first month was so robust (say, 6500 per day) that – even with the expected dramatic fall-off in attendance that will come in the fall and winter – the Ark Encounter has a chance to make good on its low-end prediction of 1.2m visitors.
So far, however, AiG has been quite vague when it comes to attendance numbers. For his part Ken Ham keeps asserting that “thousands of people are pouring in every day” while also attacking “secularists” for exaggerating how few cars are in the Ark Encounter parking lots. Most recently, Ham blasted the author of an “anti-biblical” article for “insinuat[ing] visitor numbers at the Ark are ‘disappointing,” when the truth is that Ark attendance has been “outstanding and way ahead of minimum projections” (our emphasis).
Way ahead of minimum projections? Way ahead of 1.2m? Is Ken Ham really saying that the Ark is on track to attract 1.6m or even 2m visitors in Year One?
If so, this is great news for investors, taxpayers, and Williamstown public officials who bought ARG’s feasibility study! Surely these folks are eagerly awaiting the official Ark attendance numbers that will substantiate Ham’s assertion. What a great opportunity to prove the “secularists” wrong!
Of course, if those hard numbers are not forthcoming . . .