by William Trollinger
The similarities between Donald Trump and Ken Ham are eerie. Even about attendance.
We have all seen the photos. And they are dramatic. There is no getting around the fact that attendance at the 2009 presidential inaugural – estimated to be 1.8 million – dwarfed the estimated 800,000 at the 2017 presidential inaugural.
But the fact that folks in the media and many, many others noticed and commented upon this observable reality infuriated Donald Trump. He got angrier through Inauguration Day, blasting the press while continuing to claim that there were 1.5 million in attendance. Press secretary Spicer continued the attacks on the media while asserting that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.” When pressed to explain Spicer’s false claims, Trump aide Kellyanne Conway said that Spicer did not lie but instead presented – in a stunningly memorable phrase – “alternative facts.”
And then there’s Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG), who convinced the small town of Williamstown, Kentucky in 2013 to issue $62 million of bonds for the building of Ark Encounter. This is a sweet deal for AiG, given that – as we have reported before – over the next three next decades 75% of the Ark’s property taxes will go to repaying these bonds.
How did Ham and AiG seal this deal? By telling Williamstown that in its first year the Ark Encounter would “attract between 1.2m and 2.0m visitors” which will be “followed by annual attendance increases.” With this influx of tourists, which would surpass annual visitors to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, Williamstown’s leaders believed that a building boom would soon follow bringing numerous new restaurants and hotels as well as jobs for local residents. They must have been even more thrilled when, in 2015, Ham and AiG upped the estimated attendance to 1.4m to 2.2m in the Ark’s first year.
The Ark opened on July 7, 2016. Almost immediately, observers – including this site – noticed the empty parking lots and the short ticket lines. See these photos from Thursday, July 7, 2016 (opening day) and Saturday, July 23, 2016:
Like Trump, Ham almost immediately went after the critics. In his August 15 post, “Ark Encounter’s Impact — Responding to Misinformation,” Ham blasted “the anti-God, agenda-driven secular media” for “try[ing] to fulfill their own (negative) prophecies about this Christian ministry” by “spread[ing] false information about the Ark Encounter.” While Ham refused to “release daily attendance figures” – claiming that if he did they would “get twisted and misquoted by secularists anyway” – indications are that first-year “attendance will be way beyond the minimum,” and closer to 2.2 million.
A la Trump, this is a bold claim – over 2 million visitors in the first year of the Ark – but with no substantive evidence to back it up. But every once in a while attendance numbers slip out:
- In a October 26 post advertising the premiere of The Atheist Delusion (a film in which fundamentalist Ray Comfort attempts to prove God’s existence to an assortment of atheists) at Ark Encounter, Ham noted that “this world-class themed attraction” had drawn over 400,000 visitors.
- In a November 16 interview with the Grant County News, entitled “Ark attendance nearing 500,000,” AiG’s Mark Looy noted that the Ark had attracted 425,000 visitors and claimed – without evidence – that the Ark is on track to exceed the 1.4m visitor mark by July 2017.
- In a December 26 fund-raising plea, Ken Ham boasted that “in just the few months we’ve been open, almost half a million guests have toured the life-size Ark.”
- January 7, 2017: Ark Encounter achieves its half-year anniversary and is silent about attendance.
What does all this mean? Will Ham intensify his attacks on those who suggest the Ark is not doing as well as he and Looy have said? And if the Ark does not attract 1.0-1.5 million visitors in the next six months, will AiG offer up some alternative facts?
We shall see.