Righting America

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Much to Their Chagrin, Locals Have Learned that Ark Encounter is Not the Best of Neighbors | 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

One might think that, given their self-proclaimed Christian commitments, the folks at Ark Encounter would be the most accommodating of neighbors, particularly when one considers all the gifts showered upon them by locals. These gifts include (as we have said many times) the fact that the nearby town of Williamstown floated $62m in junk bonds (or, high-risk municipal bonds) to allow for the building of the Ark, with 75% of what would have been paid by the Ark in property taxes going to pay off the bonds. But there’s more. As P. Z. Myers points out, there was also a gift of $175,000 from the Industrial Authority of Grant County (where the Ark is located), plus the sale by local officials of 100 acres to Ken Ham and company for a mere $1. 

Taking all this largesse into account, it would make sense to assume that Ark Encounter would be a good neighbor. But that assumption is challenged by the following. 

The Grant County Board of Education (GCBE) is making the case that the local property valuation of Ark Encounter is far below what it should be, and thus the Ark is not paying its rightful share of taxes for Grant County schools. In 2017 the county’s Property Value Administration estimated the Ark’s value at $46m. But the GCBE – taking into account the Ark’s land value, ticket sales, and capital investments – is arguing that the creationist theme park is worth $130m, which means that instead of the $275,912 Ark Encounter actually paid in taxes, it really should have paid $746,200. That is to say, the GCBE is asserting that the Ark stiffed county schools almost half a million dollars. And this represents just one annual tax bill. 

The GCBE appealed the valuation of Ark Encounter. When the Property Value Administration rejected their claim, the GCBE then appealed to the Kentucky Claims Commission; the Commission rejected their claim, asserting that the GCBE could not appeal because it receives taxes and does not pay taxes – that is to say, the GCBE does not have legal standing as an aggrieved entity to appeal the property valuation. But the GCBE has filed another lawsuit, in the process asking how “a school district, suffering [the loss of] hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, not be any ‘persons aggrieved?’”

Interestingly, Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG) have not, as far as I can ascertain, made any public statements about the question as to what the Ark is worth. It would be fascinating to read how Ham would construct an argument that Ark Encounter is worth only $46m. That argument may indeed be forthcoming. But Ham’s silence makes sense, given that the GCBE is using the Ark’s own numbers to come up with the value of $130m. 

The earliest example of Ark Encounter’s unneighborliness is the fact that the Ark sold Williamstown on the notion that underwriting $62m of Ark bonds would bring great development to Williamstown, something that definitely has not panned out. Adding insult to injury, Ham now blames Williamstown for this failure, claiming that it is too far away from the interstate to attract visitors (something Ham and company did not make clear when it was selling Williamstown on underwriting the bonds).

Another example of ungrateful behavior came after Williamstown, frustrated by the Ark’s failure to bring in revenue to the town, imposed a .50 cent “safety tax” on every Ark Encounter visitor. Ham and AiG responded by moving the Ark from its for-profit status to non-profit status, in the process obviating Williamstown’s ability to impose its tax. It seems this would have remained the case, except for the fact that the state of Kentucky made clear that moving the Ark to non-profit status would end the state’s sales tax rebate, which has proven to be quite the boon to Ark Encounter. So it is that, less than a month after moving the Ark to non-profit status, the folks at AiG returned it to for-profit status. Williamstown got its safety tax, but it also got the message: Ark Encounter cares about Ark Encounter, and its neighbors will have to look out for themselves. 

And that apparently includes the children. The Board of Education could not be clearer: Ark Encounter is paying much less than its fair share of taxes, which hurts local schools, which means – in the end – it is the students who attend these schools who are hurt.

But of course, this is in keeping with the message of the Ark. A few get on board. The rest drown.