Creationist Ken Ham uses unscientific numbers to calculate the age of the Earth, so it should come as no surprise that Ham also has been accused of using fuzzy math to calculate attendance figures for the Ark Encounter, his Noah’s Ark-themed amusement park in Kentucky.
As the biblically inspired Ark Park marks the second anniversary of its grand opening, city officials in the park’s hometown of Williamstown, Ky., are scaling back the revenue they expect to generate from safety fees that are connected to ticket sales.
To help cover the cost of emergency services the small town now must provide to the visitors of a large amusement park within its borders, city officials last year initiated a 50-cent fee on the tickets sold at the ark and a few smaller amusement venues in Williamstown. (This is the fee Ham and his company, Answers in Genesis, tried to avoid paying last summer by briefly switching the park’s status to nonprofit – a move that would have had a crushing long-term impact on property tax generation for the community but also nearly resulted in the park losing its $18 million state tourism subsidy.)
The local newspaper, the Grant County News, reported this month that Williamstown had collected about $374,000 in amusement fee revenue from the Ark Park during the first 11 months of the 2017-18 fiscal year. While that’s a nice chunk of change, it’s barely half of what town officials had been led to believe they would collect from the attendance projections submitted by Ham.
“Last year, we based [our] budget figure on attendance at the Ark Encounter at 1,400,000,” Williamstown Mayor Rick Skinner told the paper. “This year, we are more conservative and using 870,000 visitors.”
Ham initially projected 1.2 million people would visit the Ark in the first year after it opened in July 2016, and that average yearly attendance going forward would be in the range of 1.4 million to 2.2 million people. On the first anniversary of the park’s opening, Ham said about 1 million people visited in the first year, about 16 percent fewer than expected. But, Ham said he expected the 2017-18 attendance to be “closer to the high end” of the projections – in other words, close to 2.2 million people.
Williamstown’s safety fee collection data indicates that not only will the Ark Park’s second-year attendance come nowhere close to 2.2 million, but it will be lucky to hit 1 million. Based on the revenue the city collected, about 750,000 tickets were sold to park visitors in 11 months. In order to hit 1 million paid visitors for 2017-18, Ark Encounter would need about 250,000 visitors in June – more 100,000 more than what’s been reported as the best-performing month of the fiscal year, last July.
The same day the Grant County News story was published, a Cincinnati Enquirer story noted that Ark Encounter officials said they’d reached attendance of 1 million visitors in the past year, which they said was a 20 percent increase from the previous year. Which means about 800,000 people visited the Ark during its first year, not 1 million as Ham previously said and not 1.2 million as he’d projected.
My big takeaway from all of this is that Ham can’t be trusted to accurately predict or report the attendance figures at the Ark Encounter. And if it were just a privately funded amusement park that wasn’t getting as many people in the door as its backers had hoped, that would be sad but not something that would be of interest to us at Americans United.
But Ark Encounter wasn’t entirely privately funded. Williamstown issued $62 million in junk bonds to help finance the park’s construction and agreed to forgo 75 percent of the park’s property taxes for 30 years to pay back those bonds. As previously mentioned, the state gave the park $18 million in subsidies, plus paid about $10 million to improve nearby roads. A Grant County economic development agency essentially donated 100 acres of land for the park.
Local, county and state officials used the promise of economic development to justify using tax dollars to fund a religiously themed amusement park that is part of Ham’s mission of proselytization. But so far, the reports from Williamstown (including this take by HBO comedian John Oliver) have been about minimal development there so far – unless you count at the Ark Park itself, which plans continued expansion.
If Ham and company ever come back to the local government looking for more taxpayer-funded handouts, officials should proceed more cautiously. They ought to refrain from giving public money to fund religious facilities operated by people who don’t seem to be able to understand the ninth commandment.
(Photo: The Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Ky., in July 2016 when it opened. Credit: Jameywiki via Wikimedia)