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Ken Ham Attacks rightingamerica | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Picture of the front of the bow of the wooden ark outside the Ark Encounter with people walking in front and under the ark.
Ark Encounter, photo (c) 2018 by Susan Trollinger

“University of Dayton professor attacks Ark and Ken Ham in unscholarly article” 

That professor is me. If you would like to read what he wrote, click above. If you would like to read what I wrote, here’s a link to “Ken Ham Misleads Again.”  And here are a few comments in response to Ham’s vitriolic and misleading post:

1. Ham asserts that I “repeated the misinformation and outright untruths about the Ark’s funding that permeates other atheist blogs,” and then he continues in the next sentence by lumping me in with “secular reporters and bloggers.” All of this would be very surprising to our friends and family and students, given that Sue and I are devout Catholics – a point we made very clear when we spoke at the American Atheists Convention. Of course, it is quite possible that the fact that we are Catholic does not reassure Ham that we are actually Christian, given the anti-Catholicism found in Answers in Genesis (AiG) publications, including volume 1 of World Religions and Cults: Counterfeits of Christianity.

2. As regards the funding of Ark Encounter, I noted that “in 2013 Williamstown issued $62m worth of junk bonds” in order to help “get the Ark project underway.” Ham is very upset that I used the term “junk bonds,” which is odd, given that it is a commonly used descriptor that refers to bonds that can be valuable investments for informed investors, but their potential high returns come with the potential for high risk.”  But I have no problem referring to the Ark Encounter bonds as high-risk municipal bonds, which is how they were defined – as we reported here in March 2017 – by Gurtin Municipal Bond Management in their August 2016 newsletter. Interestingly, and as befits their readership, Gurtin’s article  — “Williamstown, KY’s Ark Encounter May End Up Sinking Investors” – focuses not on Williamstown and its taxpayers (which has been my focus), but on the dangers the Williamstown bonds pose to those who bought them. As noted by the folks at Gurtin:

On July 7, 2016 the doors of Ark Encounter opened to the public in Williamstown, Kentucky with the help of municipal investors who contributed $62 million in bond proceeds toward the amusement park in hopes that future revenues generated from admissions would be sufficient to pay them back. The potentially optimistic projections may end up sinking investors, as we have seen in the past, with other similar endeavors whose “if you build it, they will come” mentality never materialized when people did not show up.

3. A major reason the Gurtin newsletter highlighted the risks to Ark Encounter investors is that their researchers had serious doubts about the feasibility report put together by the Ark group to convince Williamstown and investors to sign on. As the newsletter stated, this feasibility report asserted that in its first year of operation the Ark was expected to attract 1.2 million to 2.0 million visitors; what the newsletter does not mention is that the feasibility report projected even significantly higher attendance figures into the future, with an average annual attendance increase of 7% for the first decade (a claim about which I suspect the Gurtin researchers were even more skeptical). So how is Ark Encounter doing with attendance? I have been following this since the park opened in the summer of 2016, and I can say that Ham and Ark Encounter are loathe to provide hard and verifiable attendance figures. But the town of Williamstown, which collects a “safety tax” from each visitor, can provide firm numbers.  And according to Williamstown, paid Ark attendance in year two (2017-18) was 862,471. Interestingly, Ham has claimed that attendance in the second year was one million,  which he asserted marked a 20% jump from year one. If Ham’s claim of a 20% increase is true, and if we make use of the firm attendance numbers provided by Williamstown, then approximately 720,000 showed up at the Ark in its first year. If we make use of Ham’s unverified 1 million visitors (and are these paid visitors?) in year two, then approximately 830,000 showed up at the Ark in 2016-2017. Either way, this is 370,000-480,000 short of the 1.2 million Ham and company sold to Williamstown and investors as the lowest possible attendance number in the first year.

4. Contrary to Ham’s claim, I did not say nor did I “imply that the city [of Williamstown] has some obligation to repay the bonds.” Moreover, I understand how Tax Increment Financing (TIF) works, an understanding enhanced by conversations with an attorney who is familiar with the Williamstown issue. That  means that I also understand how they can fail. And they can fail if the proposed project does not succeed in the fashion that was promised, if the project does not generate the revenue (tax and otherwise) that was projected, if the project simply folds. Now it is clear, based on the numbers from Williamstown cited above, that Ark Encounter is not meeting even the lowest attendance projections it offered in its feasibility report (a point that Ham has never acknowledged publicly).  I have no idea what this means for the future of Ark Encounter. Perhaps it does not need to meet these projections. Perhaps those attendance numbers were inflated in an effort to further encourage investors to put their money down. Perhaps the Ark never needs to reach an annual attendance of 1.2 million visitors for the project to survive. But there is a reason that Gurtin Municipal Bond Management used Ark Encounter as an example of a very risky municipal bond that could end up sinking investors. In this regard I will simply repeat what I said in July 2018:

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.

5. While Williamstown is not on the hook for the bonds (I did not claim that they were), it underwrote the bonds, in the process agreeing that a good chunk of what would have been property taxes paid by the Ark to Williamstown will be used to pay off Ark bondholders. It is indeed a sweet deal for Ark Encounter, and of course the folks in Williamstown signed on because they were persuaded that the Ark would bring an economic boon to Williamstown. Of course. This is the promise of TIFs. And Ham’s response, repeated in his post, is that other towns (north of Williamstown) have benefited from the Ark. But as regards Williamstown, Ham blithely asserts that 

the actual town is a half a mile off the interstate (and on the other side of the interstate) and is not visible to our guests, so the town understandably sees very few Ark visitors. And the town has not been successful so far in getting major hotels or restaurant chains to come there.

As I noted in the last post, in selling Williamstown on underwriting the $62m worth of bonds, Ham and company apparently failed to share their wisdom (articulated now by Ham, but not back in 2013) that Williamstown was located too far from the interstate to see many Ark visitors.

6. In the conclusion to his post Ham says the following:

We do hope Prof. Trollinger is providing real academic rigor to the students in his university classes as opposed to what we have exposed here: unfounded rhetoric and poor research, as he continues to disseminate false information about the Ark Encounter.

I stand by my research and my post (and Ham need not worry about my students). If Ham’s post were a paper written by a University of Dayton student in one of my first-year classes, I would have written this at the bottom of the paper:

Failure to provide substantive evidence to back your claims, and a dismaying tendency to resort to ad hominem attacks. This is not acceptable for a university-level paper. Revise and resubmit.