Americans United has long been skeptical that Ark Encounter, a proposed theme park in Kentucky that will feature a 510-foot replica of Noah’s Ark, could ever live up to the enormous projected attendance figures claimed by its leadership in order to secure public assistance. As it turns out, the numbers submitted by Ark Encounter were indeed wildly inflated.
Ark Encounter, which is a project of the creationist ministry Answers in Genesis (AiG), had to submit attendance projections as part of its application for an $18.25 million tax rebate through the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. AiG was ultimately denied that generous tax break thanks in part to a letter from Americans United informing Kentucky officials that the Ark Park, which AiG described as “evangelistic,” intended to only hire employees who would submit a “[c]reation belief statement,” as well as “[c]onfirmation of [their] agreement with the AiG Statement of Faith.”
Now, thanks to an open records request by Ed Hensley of the Kentucky Secular Society, we know that AiG was less than truthful in at least a portion of its application. Ark Encounter claimed it would have 1.2 to 2 million visitors annually. This included an estimate of over 1.6 million visitors in the park’s first year.
But the reality is nowhere near that high. Kentucky sent AiG’s application out for review, and Hunden Strategic Partners in Chicago determined that if the Ark Park remained a purely religious attraction, it would generate about 325,000 visitors its first year, rise to 425,000 in its third year and eventually fall to 275,000 by its seventh year in business. This would mean the Ark Park could create about 514 jobs, Hunden said.
Were AiG to pursue “a mainstream approach to the attraction,” Hunden estimated it could draw just under 500,000 visitors in year one, 640,000 visitors in year three, then drop off to about 400,000 by year seven. Hunden estimated 787 jobs would be created if that scenario played out.
(It’s not likely that AiG would make its project more secular. After all, it has said that the purpose of the park is to “point people to the only means of salvation from sin, the Lord Jesus Christ, who also is the only God-appointed way to escape eternal destruction.”)
So why such wildly different estimates, you may ask? Hunden said AiG’s projection applied to its original proposal from 2010, when it sought a $172 million project that would have been “a multi-day attraction.” Instead, the scaled-down $73 million proposal from 2014 is pretty much just the ark along with a petting zoo, theater, two dining facilities and a retail store.
But that isn’t the whole story. Hunden also noted that AiG’s estimate was provided by the South Carolina-based America’s Research Group, which has ties to AiG head Ken Ham.
“The president of America’s Research Group is Britt Beemer, who is also a co-author with Ken Ham on the book Already Gone,” Hunden said in its report. “Furthermore, research by Beemer and America’s Research Group is featured in Already Compromised, another book authored by Ken Ham.”
Worst of all for the Ark Park, Hunden said it would yield little economic benefit. Assuming AiG stuck by its plan to build a purely religious attraction, it would generate just $4.9 million over 10 years – when you factor in that Kentucky still plans to build an $11 million road upgrade purely to benefit the Ark Park. At that rate, it would take a little over 37 years (!) just for the state to break even on its $18 million investment.
Ever-delusional, Ham stuck by AiG’s original numbers and claimed the Ark Park will be just great because it appeals to a wide range of people – even though it would only offer an evangelical Christian perspective.
“That’s pretty good research,” Ham told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “And the ark has a much wider appeal (than the Creation Museum.). If we can get 400,000 for the Creation Museum, you know that ark is going to get a lot more than that.”
The problem for Ham is that AiG’s other big project, the Creation Museum, isn’t drawing so well. The number of people who visit the museum each year has declined since it opened, peaking at 404,000 in 2007 and falling to 254,074 for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012. In fact, AiG decided in 2013 to install zip lines at the Creation Museum in an attempt to reach a wider audience. (The last time I checked, there were no zip lines in the Bible.)
Americans United has said all along that Kentucky should have no official involvement with Ark Encounter, and every bit of new evidence that comes out only bolsters our case. Ham’s ship has been floating on a sea of falsehoods, and it may soon slip beneath the waves.