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Not Even Close to What Was Projected: A Few Facts about Ark Encounter Attendance | Righting America

by William Trollinger 

Aerial shot of the ark encounter surrounded by tress with a pond in the middle with a sandstone entrance in the front; the entrance has a rainbow pained over the archway with a road on the side and leading under the entrance.
The “Rainbow Entrance” at Ark Encounter. Image via BruceGerenscer.net

Last week a reader sent a snarky note in response to a 2017 post I  wrote about the failure of the newly-opened Ark Encounter to live up to its first-year attendance projections:

Wonder how you’re feeling about the fact [that] about 10 million people have visited the Ark Encounter and [that] there are new hotels being built to meet the demand of the ever expanding attraction.

Here’s the first part of my response:

I am guessing you are getting these numbers from Ken Ham. I am afraid the facts do not come close to supporting his claims . . . More than this, the Ark has not come close to matching the attendance projections they used to convince Williamstown to issue junk bonds to aid the project.

Facts. It’s wonderful to work with facts. And as regards Ark Encounter attendance, we have facts, and thus don’t have to depend on the “creative” statements put forth by the folks at Answers in Genesis (AiG).

One of the facts we have is the 2013 Ark Encounter, LLC Feasibility Report that was presented to the town of Williamstown, and is included as Appendix A in Williamstown’s official statement regarding the issuance of $62 million worth of “Taxable Industrial Building Revenue Bonds, Series 2013.”

On the first page of the “Visitation Projections” section, right there in black and white, the feasibility report confidently claims that “the Ark Encounter is expected to attract between 1.2 million and 2.0 million visitors (or an estimated average of 1.6 million visitors) during the first year of operation.” Then, in the “Financial Projections” section, there is a very clear “10-year Operating Income Projections” chart, which includes the projection that there will be (in the first ten years of the Ark’s existence) “Annual Attendance Growth,” with a 4% annual increase as the norm, but with a few years (thanks to new exhibits and the like) that will see a 10% growth rate.

Using the “estimated average of 1.6 million visitors” in the first year – and I should note that Ham actually predicted that first year attendance would be closer to 2.2 million – here’s the projected attendance numbers included in the feasibility study:

  • Year 1: 1,600,000 
  • Year 2: 1,664,000 (4% increase)
  • Year 3: 1,730,560 (4% increase)
  • Year 4: 1,903,616 (10% increase) 
  • Year 5: 1,979,761 (4% increase)
  • Year 6: 2,177,737 (10% increase)

And here come some more facts. We can actually know how many folks visit Ark Encounter, thanks to the fact that – as of July 2017 — a 50 cent “safety fee” has been added to each Ark ticket. Every month the remarkable Dan Phelps – founder and president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society – asks Williamstown officials for the total amount collected that month from the safety fee. And from those facts we have a very clear picture of Ark attendance.

So here is the actual Ark Encounter attendance, compared to the projected attendance numbers: 

  • Year 1 (JY 2016-JE 2017): est. 800,000 (50% of projected attendance)
  • Year 2 (JY 2017-JE 2018): 862,491(52% of projected attendance)
  • Year 3 (JY 2018-JE 2019): 875,882 (51% of projected attendance)
  • Year 4 (JY 2019-JE 2021): 841,772 (44% of projected attendance)
    • NOTE: I left out March 2020-February 2021, given the impact of COVID on Ark attendance.
  • Year 5 (JY 2021-JE 2022): 775,731(39% of projected attendance)
  • Year 6 (JY 2022-JE 2023): 724,311(33% of projected attendance)
    • NOTE: the January-June 2023 numbers are estimates based on the fact that Ark attendance the first six months of the year has historically been around ¾ of attendance in the last six months.

Ark Encounter has never reached the 1.2 million which was estimated as the absolute lowest possible attendance in the first year, much less reached the median estimate of 1.6 million. And with every year the Ark sinks further and further behind the numbers included in the feasibility report. Numbers that convinced little Williamstown to issue $62m of junk bonds to get the Ark project started, and to agree that 75% of what Ark Encounter would have paid in property taxes would instead go to paying off the loan. 

What a sweet deal for the Ark. What a government subsidy

And Williamstown is left holding the bag. I concluded my response to the correspondent mentioned at the beginning by noting that

to add insult to injury, Williamstown is clearly not seeing great benefits from the building of the Ark. It would be lovely if Ham and Answers in Genesis would come clean about all this, but I am not holding my breath.