Rocking The Boat: Fundamentalist Ministry Head Responds To AU’s ‘Ark Park’ Criticisms

Americans United doesn’t care if Ken Ham wants to build replicas of Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel or even the Garden of Eden – just so long as he does it without help from taxpayers. We don’t have a problem with AiG’s Christian message – we have a problem with a Christian message that gets government backing.

For years, Americans United has been critical of attempts by local and state lawmakers in Kentucky to provide financial assistance to Ark Encounter, a proposed theme park that would feature a 510-foot replica of Noah’s Ark. Now Ken Ham, head of the fundamentalist ministry Answers in Genesis (AiG), which is spearheading the project, finally responded to AU’s criticisms.

Ham did not disappoint, unless you were expecting honesty.

In a lengthy blog post for AiG’s website, Ham denied that the Ark Park, which he described as “evangelistic,” is receiving any assistance from taxpayers. His defense was vintage Ham: He has a habit of dismissing his critics as dishonest atheists who hate religion.

So naturally he opened with a general attack on Americans United, describing us as a group that “has launched various lawsuits in its ongoing war on Christianity in America.” That could not be farther from the truth. AU is not out to attack Christianity or any other group. We are instead out to protect people of all faiths and philosophies from those who would seek to use the power of government to force their beliefs onto others. If that were not true, would we be led by the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ? Not likely.

Ham then moved on in an attempted refute of some of AU’s many criticisms of his pet project, which is now many years behind schedule. (Ham originally said ground would be broken on Ark Encounter in the spring of 2011, yet it appears no progress has been made to date beyond a ceremonial groundbreaking in May.)

First Ham took on AU Director of Communications Rob Boston, who wrote earlier this week that “the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Board voted unanimously last week to approve a package of tax breaks for the park, which is formally known as the Ark Encounter. The incentives total $18 million.”

Ham denied that this tax incentive program is equivalent to taxpayer funding for the park.

“[T]he only people involved in this incentive/refund are visitors to the Ark who pay sales tax when they come to the Ark,” Ham wrote. “That is, after it is open – i.e., sales tax collected from people who choose to visit the Ark (the majority of whom will be from outside Kentucky). No unwilling taxpayer is helping to construct the Ark Encounter.”

That is not quite right. While it is true that Ark Encounter won’t see a dime of that $18 million tax credit until the park opens and draws visitors, Kentucky is still forfeiting millions of dollars in tax revenues that it would have otherwise kept. Sure, that $18 million won’t come directly out of Kentucky’s coffers, but the state is still effectively spending a large chunk of change to repay the builders of Ark Encounter for a portion of their construction costs. That money could have been spent on projects to benefit taxpayers – instead it’s benefiting Ham.

Next, Ham criticized some of the things I have written about Ark Encounter. He said my statement that the Ark Park is eligible for “an astounding $100 million (or more) in various types of public support” is a “ridiculously inaccurate charge.”

Yet Ham does not bother to explain why it’s “inaccurate,” so let me explain why it actually is accurate. Originally, when Ark Encounter was a more ambitious project, Kentucky offered AiG a tax incentive package in the neighborhood of $40 million (it has since been scaled back to $18 million because AiG submitted a less ambitious plan). The bulk of the remaining support comes from $62 million worth of municipal bonds offered by the City of Williamstown, where the Ark Park is to be built.

Ham claimed that: “While the city did issue the bonds on our behalf through an underwriter, the Ark Encounter is totally obligated for the bonds (no government entity is obligated).”

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, which analyzed the disclosure documents related to this bond offering, AiG is not backing any of the debt.

“Bondholders’ sole revenue stream comes from money spent at Ark Encounter,” Bloomberg reported. “The park ‘may never achieve positive cash flow,’ which documents say would lead to default.”

Americans United also obtained the bond disclosure documents. In them, Williamstown said the bonds “will be loaned by the Issuer (the city) to Crosswater Canyon, Inc., a Kentucky nonprofit corporation (“Crosswater Canyon”) and Ark Encounter, LLC, a Missouri limited liability company…”

Even if this offering is not considered a traditional loan, at a minimum the city is supporting Ark Encounter by issuing the bonds for fundraising purposes – AiG certainly could not have done this without government help.

AiG said on its website that the bond offering actually yielded $73 million, but Ham did not make that claim in his most recent blog post. In fact, he didn’t offer any details about the bonds except to say he can’t comment and they are complicated. In late February, however, the Louisville Courier-Journal asked Williamstown how much money the bond issue raised. The city wouldn’t say, leaving many to wonder just how much money AiG actually has on hand.     

But that isn’t all. The City of Williamstown has also promised a 75 percent property tax break for Ark Encounter, and Kentucky approved a $9 million road construction project in a rural area that just happens to be where the Ark Park is supposed to be built (that project has since been delayed). The Grant County Industrial Development Authority also gave Ark Encounter almost 100 acres of discounted land and almost $200,000 in incentives to keep the project in that area, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Finally, Ham attacked my colleague Sarah Jones, who wrote last year that “Ham is entitled to evangelize however he wants, but he’s not entitled to tax breaks to help fund his fundamentalist roadside attraction.”

Ham responded not by attacking that argument but by criticizing Jones, claiming she “has a clear agenda: attack the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter because they teach a Christian message.”

In truth, Americans United doesn’t care if Ham wants to build replicas of Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel or even the Garden of Eden – just so long as he does it without help from taxpayers. We don’t have a problem with AiG’s Christian message – we have a problem with a Christian message that gets government backing.   

Ham said that the Ark Park is getting absolutely no money from taxpayers, but it’s clear that isn’t true. So as long as Kentucky lawmakers continue to back the ark, we’ll be here to fight it.