Here we are, entering 2017, and just a week from the six-month anniversary of the opening of Ark Encounter. In his end-of-the-year fundraising plea Ken Ham reports that “in just the few months we’ve been open, almost a half million visitors have toured the life-size Ark, and thousands more have already booked bus and group tours for next year!” (italics in the original). Donate to “this cutting-edge ministry that’s actively involved in contending for the faith in our very anti-Christian, secularized world,” and you will be supporting both the building of “a pre-Flood village near the Ark” as well as the expansion of the petting zoo to include “an outdoor teaching stage so guests can learn about biblical animal kinds and modern species.”
We do not know what “almost a half million visitors” means exactly. But let’s say the Ark has had 500, 000 visitors in the first six months. Extrapolating from this, this could mean a million visitors for the year. Of course, given that we are past the free publicity attendant to the Ark’s opening, and given that (because the Ark opened on July 7) 2/3 of the summer vacation months have been accounted for, this seems a generous estimate.
But let’s be generous. Let’s imagine that the Ark will have one million visitors in its first year.
Good news? Well, it depends. Take, for example, the people of Williamstown, a sleepy town of 3952 residents located just a few miles from Ark Encounter.
The people of Williamstown gave Ark Encounter $62 million in Tax Incremental Funding (TIF). This is quite the gift (and one which Ham and Answers in Genesis say little about), especially given that for the next thirty years 75% of the Ark’s property taxes will go toward repaying the TIF bonds, and not to the town of Williamstown.
Of course, the people of Williamstown gave this gift for a reason. They were hoping that Ark Encounter would produce an influx of tourists and the development of hotels and restaurants that would prove to be a great boon to the Williamstown economy. That is to say, Williamstown placed a bet on Ark Encounter. To be specific, they placed a bet on the projected attendance numbers provided to them by Ark Encounter.
So what were those projected numbers? As we reported on this blog a few months ago:
The feasibility study produced by America’s Research Group (ARG) – headed up by Ken Ham’s friend, Britt Beamer – 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) . . . numbers [that] are equal or better than the 1.4m visitors who annually visit Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry . . . [and numbers that] “will be followed by annual attendance increases” (A-13).
As we have noted in earlier posts, there was evidence from the beginning that the Ark could fall short of its low-end projection of 1.2 million visitors in the first year. In fact, within a month of the Ark’s opening the Williamstown mayor was lamenting the fact that his small town was not seeing the promised economic benefits. Ham vigorously responded by attacking developers for listening to “the continual stream of negative, false information from the secular media and atheist bloggers” while simultaneously claiming that “indications are that attendance will be . . . closer to [2.2 million].”
Given “almost a half million visitors” in the first six months, Ham’s prediction is not looking so good. It is inconceivable that Ark Encounter’s plans to expand their petting zoo or what GQ’s Jeff Vrabel “objectively describe[d] as tobacco country’s saddest zoo” will result in Ark attendance going from 83,000 visitors per month to 250,000 visitors per month in the first half of 2017. It is hard to imagine that Williamstown officials hoping for a windfall of tourist dollars are satisfied by – as enthusiastically reported by Ken Ham – the opening of Shem’s Snack Shack, with its “‘gourmet hot dogs flooded with flavor,’ as well as sides, sandwiches, and ice cream.”
But while lower-than-expected attendance and the lack of development might be bad for Williamstown and Ark investors, they may not be bad for Ken Ham and company. That is because, under Tax Incremental Funding guidelines, if Ark Encounter does not meet its attendance projections, if it does not produce the economic windfall Williamstown thought it had been promised, it is not Ark Encounter that is on the hook. Instead, the debt burden falls on the investors and the taxpayers.
Whether Ark Encounter is attracting enough visitors to bring a profit is unknown. Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t. But it is a whole different question to ask if it is bringing in enough visitors, as promised, to make the huge tax break that the people of Williamstown gave to Ark Encounter a good deal for them. That is to say, what is good enough for Ark Encounter may not be good enough for the people of Williamstown.