Righting America

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The Sinking of a Small Town | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Local TV news is often derided as superficial and sensational. “If it bleeds, it leads” is the common adage.  But there are times when a local newscast really does shine light and really does help us understand.

One such example is the February 25 report by Emilie Arroyo (WKYT, Lexington) entitled “Community Says Ark Park’s Economic Promise Falls Short.” Here’s a selection from this 90-second segment (and note that the quotes are from Steve Wood, the top administrator in Grant County, where Ark Encounter is located):

To the nearby Williamstown community [the Ark] once looked like a lifeboat to save them from financial woes and job cuts. But all that has changed over the last seven months since it opened. “I think the Ark has done well. And I’m glad for them on that. But it has not done us good at all.”. . . Promises of shared crowds and economic development are falling short for the nearby Kentucky community. “I was one of these believers that when the Ark came . . . everything was going to come in. But it’s not done it.” Williamstown leaders say they thought the park would boost their downtown region. Instead, they continue to teeter on the edge of bankruptcy as shops remain empty and foot traffic stays light. “Nothing. I don’t mean to sound negative in this interview, but there’s nothing here.”

The national media – New York Daily News and Raw Story – have picked up on this story,  making clear that it is Grant County that is on the verge of bankruptcy, the result being that the county is considering the possibility of laying off workers and imposing a 2% payroll tax. The Raw Story article also makes reference to the fact that, amidst this financial chaos, Ham’s ark stands to benefit from what could be an 18 million dollar sales tax rebate (while the Raw Story states that this would come from the county, it actually would come from the state of Kentucky).   

All of these reports miss a larger and more tragic part of this story. As we have noted before – most recently on February 7 – Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG) worked hard to sell Williamstown on the notion that Ark Encounter was going to be their economic lifeboat. So the little town gave the project $62 million in Tax Incremental Funding (TIF). Over the next three decades, 75% of Ark Encounter’s property taxes will go toward repaying the bonds instead of into local coffers. Even better for AiG, if the promised economic development does not materialize, it is the taxpayers and investors who are on the hook for those TIFs, not AiG.

Given all of this, it makes a great deal of sense that local officials are worried about the Ark’s failure to generate development. Just one month after the Ark’s opening  the mayor of Williamstown, Rick Shermer, expressed concern that the town was not experiencing the economic boost it had been promised.

At that time, Ken Ham responded to Shermer and others by asserting that developers should ignore

the continual stream of negative, false information from the secular media and atheist bloggers. I think much of the secular media is responsible for part of the issue regarding the impact on the surrounding area, as they have spread so much false information about the Ark Encounter . . . The Ark Encounter can’t be held responsible for what others (businesses/developers) do or don’t do in the region. I challenge business owners and developers to take advantage of this big influx of visitors into the region to help their local communities prosper.

But as regards these latest complaints from local leaders, Ham has not – as of yet – had anything to say. Instead, he and his AiG colleagues are focusing on attendance numbers at the Ark. As reported by Emilie Arroyo:

The Ark hosted about 500,000 visitors in 2016, and a staffer says they have had about 645,000 guests to date. [Ken Ham:] “Looking at the bookings for the future and looking at the group bookings I would say we’re well on target to hit our minimum of 1.4 million up to 2.2 million, as the research has suggested.”

There are two problems with this. First, the numbers. As we have repeatedly noted, while Ham and AiG occasionally provide numbers, they never provide evidence of their accuracy.

But let’s play along. Let’s imagine that, as of February 25, 645,000 individuals had visited the Ark. This means that from July 7 to February 25 the Ark averaged 2756.4 visitors per day. Keep in mind that this includes two summer months; keep in mind that this includes a month or so of intense media coverage of the grand opening of the Ark. But let’s just go with 2756.4 visitors per day. If that average continues all the way until July 7, 2017, the Ark will have received just over 1 million visitors.

How does Ham come up with “1.4 million up to 2.2 million” visitors in the first year? Is he assuming that daily attendance will increase dramatically with the newly-opened graphic-novel-styled “Why the Bible is True” exhibit, the springtime opening of some shops and kiosks outside the Ark, the promised expansion of (as one commentator put it) “tobacco country’s saddest zoo,” and the fact that Emzara’s Kitchen now has a buffet (which has its own promotional video)?

But the attendance numbers are not the primary problem. However many guests actually visit the ark in its first year (800,000 or 1.0m or 1.4m or even 2.2m), there is no sign of a local development boom. What Ken Ham and AiG sold to community leaders who were desperate for an economic boost is not coming to pass. As Arroyo mentioned at the beginning of her story, the Ark has not turned out to be a lifeboat for Williamstown. Ark Encounter may be doing great, but the local community is not.

But then, this is precisely Ark Encounter’s message. Everybody inside the Ark is snug, happy, and safe. All those outside the Ark as the floodwaters rise? They drown.