When Australian evangelist and creationist Ken Ham decided he wanted to open Ark Encounter, a theme park centered on a rendition of Noah’s Ark in northern Kentucky, he was quick to point out that the facility would be a for-profit enterprise.
Local officials, eager to bring jobs to the economically distressed area, showered Ham’s big boat with subsidies and support. The town of Williamstown issued $62 million in high-yield (“junk”) bonds to help finance the project. In addition, the city and surrounding Grant County created a special “tax increment financing district” that allows Ark Encounter to get back 75 percent of any increase in property taxes. The state spent millions on road upgrades.
A year has passed, and it looks like Ham hasn’t been very thankful for these gifts. In fact, the formerly warm relationship between the “Ark Park” and the town has lately become a little frosty. It’s unclear how many visitors the park is drawing, Williamstown and surrounding Grant County haven’t noticed much of an economic boost and now Ham is refusing to help offset the cost of emergency services.
Williamstown, Ky., hasn't seen the economic boost that Ken Ham's 'Ark Park' promised. (Photo by W. Marsh via Wikimedia)
Williamstown is hurting. To boost its public safety services, the town council has voted to impose a 50-cent tax on tickets sold at Ark Encounter and other local attractions. Adult admission to the park is $40, so this wouldn’t seem to be a huge burden. And it’s for a good cause – the money will be used to fund fire, police and emergency services that are available to the park and its visitors.
Instead of extending a hand of help to the people who made his park possible, Ham is on the warpath. He may be preparing to declare that Ark Encounter is no longer a for-profit enterprise. Recently he sold Ark Encounter and its land, valued at $48 million, to a non-profit affiliate called Crosswater Canyon for $10. (No, that’s not a typo. Ham sold the whole shebang – to himself, really – for ten bucks.)
It looks like Ham is trying to get out of paying the safety tax by claiming to be a tax-exempt religious organization – and he’s even threatening to sue the city. But that may be just a start. If the Ark Park declares itself a non-profit entity, it could demand exemption from all taxes, including the property taxes that fund local public schools.
“I believe this is the first step,” said Williamstown City Councilman Kim Crupper told the Lexington Herald Leader. “The impact would be far larger than just Williamstown.”
Crupper added, “This ordinance was carefully thought out, this does not affect their bottom line. We have to make sure your police and fire and emergency services can assure safety. If you’re going to pay $40 for a ticket and $10 to park, I don’t think you’re going to argue over 50 cents.”
The Williamstown City Council met last night and took no action on an offer by Ark Encounter to pay about $350,000 per year into the safety fund, roughly half of what it is expected to pay under the current arrangement.
Let’s take a step back here and look at what has happened in Williamstown and Grant County: Ham told these communities that his park would be an economic lifeline. That hasn’t happened. Ham also said Ark Encounter would be a for-profit operation and thus it should qualify for subsidies and incentive packages from the city, county and state governments. (Ham denies that the park gets subsidies, but William and Susan Trollinger, bloggers who have written about Ham’s projects, make it clear that it does.)
After getting all of this assistance from the government, Ham won’t consider paying his fair share to help a struggling community pay to provide basic health and safety services – even though his park relies on those things.
The man is an ingrate. Williamstown and Grant County, we hate to say we told you so – but, well, we told you so.