In the end, John Oliver let Ark Encounter off easy.
In the most recent episode of Last Week Tonight Oliver went after state and local tax incentive schemes that are designed to encourage companies to build or expand, but that routinely fail to produce the jobs and development that they promise. And Ken Ham’s big boat just outside Williamstown, Kentucky was Exhibit A.
There are some very funny bits here, including Oliver’s commentary on all the sexual activity that must have been taking place on the Ark (two-by-two and all that – as is often the case with Last Week Tonight, this is not an episode to watch with children!). And then there’s discussion about the Ark’s obsession – and it really is an obsession – with the question of waste removal. According to placards at Ark Encounter, the “manure problem” may have been solved by the use of “slatted floors or multiple-level cages,” which, as Oliver observes, is “really not a good answer, as you do not want to be the animal on the lowest level of that ship.”
As regards tax incentives, Oliver rightly observed that Ark Encounter is receiving $18m in sales tax rebates from the state of Kentucky, “the justification for taking [this] gamble on a gigantic ark [being] that it would be a boon to the whole area.” But when Grant County Judge-Executive Steve Wood is asked about the Ark’s economic impact on the town of Williamstown, his response is blunt:
“Nothing. I don’t mean to sound negative in this interview, but there’s nothing here.”
Oliver’s discussion of Ark Encounter is hilarious, pointedly critical, and on the mark. But for all of this, Oliver understates the governmental support that Ark Encounter has received. As we have noted before, in 2013 Williamstown issued $62m of junk bonds and loaned the proceeds to the Ark. “Loaned” belongs in scare quotes, given that, over the next thirty years, 75% of what Ark Encounter would have paid in property taxes will instead be used to pay off the loan.
Combine this with the sales tax rebate, and the result is a huge governmental subsidy for Ark Encounter. In fact, without the $62m loan/gift from Williamstown, it is hard to imagine how Ken Ham’s big boat would have been built. And yet, Williamstown has nothing to show for it. Shuttered shops in downtown, a paucity of foot traffic, no development at the interstate exit. “There’s nothing here.”
The story is even worse than the story told by John Oliver. And that’s saying something.
P.S. For more on Oliver’s story on Ark Encounter, see what our friends at Americans United for Separation of Church and State and I Love You But You Are Going to Hell have to say.