by William Trollinger
Taking a page out of Steve Bannon’s playbook, Answers in Genesis (AiG) CEO Ken Ham has launched a broadside against “the leftist media and bloggers” for “twisting information, disseminating misinformation, and making [sic] outright lies.”
And what has so infuriated Ham? An editorial in the February 2017 issue Church and State — the magazine produced by the Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) – entitled “Dragons and Dinosaurs: Don’t Force Ky. Taxpayers to Prop Up the ‘Ark Park.'” The first part of the editorial describes AiG’s preposterous claim that Beowulf is an eyewitness account that provides evidence of the fact that dinosaurs and humans were on the Earth at the same time (a point we discuss in Righting America, p. 198). After granting that “people have the right to believe things that are flat-out incorrect,” the editor goes on to argue that
What’s not acceptable is expecting taxpayers to prop up this nonsense – and that’s exactly what’s happening in Kentucky. Ham denies that he got state subsidies to build Ark Encounter, but he did. Under a Kentucky program, once a year, all of the 6 percent sales tax that Ark Encounter charged for things like tickets, food and souvenirs is returned to the park. So money that had been in the state treasury is given back to Ark Encounter. That’s a subsidy.
In his February 05 post, “Americans United Group Twisting Truth Once Again,” Ham devotes five paragraphs to attacking this AU statement, all of which can be boiled down to two points:
1. Since the first check from the state of Kentucky will not arrive at Ark Encounter until later this year, the “rebate” (Ham’s word) did not contribute to the building of Ham’s ark.
2. The “rebate” actually is an “overall incredible net gain” for the state of Kentucky, given the “millions of dollars” already brought into the state by Ark Encounter. (No evidence for this claim is provided.)
None of this would seem to invalidate AU’s claim that Kentucky is providing Ark Encounter with a “subsidy.” But never mind. While Ham would like readers to focus on these semantics, we should look at something else Ham says: “The Ark Encounter was built by donations and bond issue [emphases ours]– no state money was used.”
Bond issue. It sounds straightforward. Boring even. But nothing could be further from the truth.
As we have reported numerous times, in 2013 the town of Williamstown – a few miles from the Ark, with a population under 4,000 – gave Ark Encounter $62 million in Tax Incremental Funding. Over the next thirty years, the Ark will apply 75% of its property taxes toward repayment of these bonds. This is a remarkably sweet deal, made sweeter by the fact that if the Ark sinks, the taxpayers and the investors (and not AiG) will be left holding the bag.
It is interesting that Ham never mentions the specifics of this deal, even though telling the truth – which he claims to do in this article – would surely require him to say more than the two-word phrase, “bond issue.”
Of course, if Ham were to talk about this sweet deal, he would surely claim that – as he claims regarding the sales tax subsidy – in the long run this deal benefits the region more than it benefits Ark Encounter. This is how he sold it to little Williamstown, claiming that in its first year Ark Encounter would “attract between 1.2m and 2.0m visitors” which will be “followed by annual attendance increases.” In 2015 he increased the estimated attendance to 1.4m to 2.2m in the Ark’s first year; last August, one month after the Ark opened, Ham proclaimed that the first year “attendance will be way beyond the minimum,” and closer to 2.2m.
Getting Ark attendance information out of AiG is as difficult as is getting Ham to acknowledge the remarkably generous conditions of the bond issue. But as we noted in a recent post, in late December Ham bragged that the Ark had attracted almost 500,000 guests (which, oddly enough, is what AiG’s Mark Looy claimed in mid-November).
Those numbers do not bode well for Ham’s attendance projections. And if AiG falls short of what they told Williamstown to get these bonds, what word should we use to describe what they were given by the town?
Subsidy? Or something else?
I’m an alumni of Johns Hopkins university, and am glad to see that Johns Hopkins Press is publishing your books. I am in the financial industry, and the bond offering looks like it deserves a junk rating. If I were a bond holder, I’d be livid at the lack of transparency.
I wanted to thank you for your scholarly research into the matter of ArkEncounter and Creation Museum finances. Even though I myself am a Young Earth Creationist, I don’t like seeing disconcerting lack of transparency in finances and putting at risk investors and taxpayers in the way some of the deals were cut.
Though I obviously have a sharply different world view than what is represented in this blog, I have an interest in seeing people on my side of the issue conduct themselves with high standards in regard to being stewards of God’s money.
Is there any expectation there will be audited financial statements being made public since taxpayers have a vested interest in the ArkEncounter’s progress? Thank you in advance.
Thank you for your thoughtful response. Right: having different views on creation and evolution should not preclude agreement on matters of financial transparency and honesty. We too worry about the investors and taxpayers, and about what all this means for Williamstown.