Rough Sailing

In Kentucky, A Creationist Theme Park Stays Afloat On A Sea Of Taxpayer Support

If you believe homosexuality is a sin, the Earth is a few thousand years old and the Bible is literally true, then Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis (AiG), may have a job for you.

“Per the required Statement of Faith, an applicant must profess, inter alia, that homosexuality is a sin on par with bestiality and incest, that the earth is only 6,000 years old, and that the bible is literally true in order to be considered for the job,” read the requirements for employment posted until recently on AiG’s website.

AiG is a fundamentalist Christian ministry based in Petersburg, Ky. It already runs the Creation Museum, but this position (for a web-design slot) is for a new project that Ham and AiG have in the works: Ark Encounter, a Christian fundamentalist theme park that will feature a 510-foot replica of Noah’s Ark.

Dubbed the “Ark Park,” the project has been described by AiG officials as “evangelistic.” Yet it has been prom­ised a generous amount of financial assistance from various Kentucky lawmakers.

It has also been beset by over three years of missed deadlines and delays. In fact, it was not until this summer that AiG finally announced it would begin hiring for the Ark Park, but the payoff was far short of the 900 jobs lawmakers hoped for: reportedly just 265 jobs will be filled, 218 of which will be part time. 

Since 2010, Americans United has vigorously protested the extensive government help promised to the sectarian endeavor. From the beginning, AU has been alarmed by the estimated $100 million in government help AiG has variously been promised should it ever manage to complete its mammoth project.

Kentucky lawmakers have shown their desperation to create jobs of any sort by lavishing public largess on AiG.

So far, these include: preliminary approval for $18 million in state tax incentives to offset the cost of the park’s construction; a 75 percent property tax break over 30 years from the City of Williamstown (a town of about 3,200 near where the park will be located); an $11-million road upgrade in a rural area that would almost exclusively facilitate traffic going to and from the park; a $200,000 gift from the Grant County Industrial Development Authority to make sure the project stays in that county; 100 acres of reduced-price land and, finally, a $62 million municipal bond issue from Williamstown that Ham claims has kept the entire project from sinking.

Why so much government attention on an oddball project like this? Kentucky legislators may simply be desperate. The state’s unemployment rate rose sharply during the Great Recession, hitting a peak of 10.7 percent in August 2009, almost 1 percent above the nationwide rate at that time.

Exactly one year later, Kentucky was still at 10 percent unemployment, which likely led Gov. Steve Beshear (D) to announce in December 2010 that Ark Encounter would be eligible for more than $37 million in state sales tax breaks.

State tourism laws allow developers to recover up to 25 percent of the cost of a project through a rebate on the sales tax paid by visitors on admission tickets, food, gift purchases and lodging costs once the attraction opens. Beshear claimed at the time that the project would attract 1.6 million visitors annually, have a $214 million economic impact in the first year of its existence and create as many as 900 jobs – figures that skeptics said were wildly optimistic.

“I think it’s fair to say we are all very positive, initially, about this application, and we don’t really see any problems in getting it approved,” Beshear said, citing job creation as the primary benefit of the park.

Even now, the Bluegrass State consistently has an unemployment rate about 1 percent above the U.S. rate, which could explain the continued financial incentives piled onto the Ark Park – even as AiG has struggled to raise its own funds and backpedaled frequently on deadlines for the park’s construction and opening.

AiG said in January 2011 that ground would be broken on Ark Encounter that spring, according to Louisville’s LEO Weekly. Then in May, AiG said groundbreaking would occur during the summer. In June, AiG said construction would begin in August.

By early August 2011, AiG still had not broken ground but took to claiming it would happen “in the next few months.” In late August, AiG bumped the timetable way back, saying groundbreaking would begin in the spring of 2012. That deadline ultimately fell by the wayside as well.

The reason for the ever-changing calendar likely stemmed from unsuccessful fundraising efforts. According to another article in LEO Weekly, the project had received just $4.3 million of the $24.5 million sought as of December 2011, with donations totaling a mere $1.3 million in the last seven months of that year. 

In an October 2011 email to Todd Cassidy, executive director of the Kentucky Tourism Cabinet’s Office of Financial Services, which approved Ark Encounter’s sales tax break, AiG Senior Vice President Mike Zovath made excuses.

“Todd, we actually considered an official ground breaking earlier this month but too many complexities got in the way so we ended up putting it on hold until everything is worked out,” Zovath wrote. “Funding is progressing, a little slower due to the very slow economy.”

Zovath also said in the email, obtained by LEO Weekly, that there were problems with permits and purchasing property, meaning it could take an additional three to four months before construction would begin. Nonetheless, Zovath optimistically predicted the park would open earlier than the planned spring 2014 unveiling. But that didn’t happen either, and news about the Ark Park went silent for the next couple of months – aside from government attempts to keep the project afloat.

In March 2012, Americans United learned that a proposed state budget allocated $2 million for upgrades to Kentucky Route 36, a road that stretches for 120 miles through a rural area that just happens to include Ark Encounter’s future home. AU called on Beshear to veto this item, but ultimately the state agreed to budget a whopping $11 million for improvements to Route 36, though the start date of that project has since been pushed back to 2017 – one year after Ham said his Ark Park will open – according to the Cincinnati Enquirer

“Legislators are desperately looking for ways to cut the budget, yet they are including $2 million to benefit the Ark Park,” Barry W. Lynn, AU’s executive director, said in 2012. “That’s an astonishing lapse in judgment. Taxpayers should never be forced to support a religious ministry, and it is particularly appalling to do so when essential public services are being cut.”

AiG also received other forms of generous assistance around this time, including a 75 percent property tax break from Williamstown, a $200,000 gift from the Grant County Industrial Development Authority to make sure the project stays in that county and 100 acres of reduced-price land for the site of the theme park.

All the while, Ham’s project floundered, raising doubts about whether – not when – the park would ever open.

Then, just as Americans United and other critics thought perhaps the Ark Park would finally die after a lengthy illness, misguided lawmakers rescued Ham’s pet project once again. In November 2013, Bloomberg News reported that Williamstown would sell $62 million worth of municipal bonds starting in December on behalf of AiG affiliates in what seemed to be a last-ditch effort to save the Ark Park.

The bonds received junk status, which is the lowest possible rating for an investment. This means that financial analysts who evaluated the bonds believe it is highly unlikely that anyone who buys them will actually get money back.

It seems especially doubtful in this case, since Williamstown is not responsible for any of the debt. In fact, AiG isn’t responsible for it, either. The bond offering documents listed 39 risks for investors, including the caveat that AiG does not have to pay back the debt. Instead, bond holders would earn a return only when customers actually spend cash at the park. The offering documents also warned potential investors that the Ark Park has stirred up church-state issues, and AiG could eventually be tied up in lawsuits that prohibit the park from opening.

Stuck with that less-than-rosy outlook, the bonds initially sold poorly – despite an offer that anyone who buys at least $100,000 worth of them would get a lifetime pass to Ark Encounter for his or her family. In January 2014, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that even though $26.5 million in bonds had been sold at that point, an additional $29 million needed to be sold by Feb. 6 or else those who had already bought bonds would have been able to collect on their investment immediately.

But just as the Ark Park seemed sunk yet again, AiG announced Feb. 27 on its website that the bond offering had succeeded. But even in that seemingly happy moment, Ham chose to lash out at his enemies, whom he blamed for nearly sabotaging the process.

“We praise our Creator God for His blessings and for the incredible support we just witnessed from our generous supporters around the country,” Ham said. “Yes, there have been days of nervous anticipation. Many challenges and road blocks came up as we worked through the stages of the bond offering leading up to the final bond delivery. From atheists registering for the bond offering and attempting to disrupt it, to secular bloggers and some reporters writing misleading and inaccurate articles about the bonds — the obstacles were numerous and disruptive.” 

Critics, including Americans United, have questioned just how much the bonds actually raised. Due to AU’s persistent criticism of Ark Encounter, including questioning the bond fundraising total, Ham fired back in a blog post on AiG’s website in August.

An angry Ham said AU “has launched various lawsuits in its ongoing war on Christianity in America,” and claimed that there is no mystery about the bonds.

“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),” he said, apparently ignoring that Ark Encounter doesn’t have to pay back a dime if it never opens its doors.

AiG has said the bonds ended up bringing in $73 million, but Ham has proved unwilling to provide any more information. That, coupled with the fact that Williamstown in February declined to comment to the Courier-Journal about the bonds, isn’t helping AiG prove that it actually raised $73 million.

It’s also worth noting that just as Ark Encounter was supposedly benefitting from this financial windfall, it quietly withdrew its original application to the Kentucky Tourism Cabinet for an approximately $150 million project that would have generated up to $43 million in tax breaks, provided construction began by May 2014. They replaced it on March 28 with a $73 million proposal that would yield about $18 million in tax breaks if it receives final approval, LEO Weekly reported in May. 

Since then, AiG has posted video on its website of a “groundbreaking” ceremony, which was held May 1 and featured nothing more than a handful of men in suits using mallets to hammer wooden pegs into planks. The event took place inside an auditorium and involved no shovels or dirt.

On Aug. 7, AiG said construction was nearly under way for real.

“Soon after the arrival of a crucial federal permit that took over one year to obtain, massive earth-moving equipment is descending on the location of the future Ark Encounter in northern Kentucky,” AiG reported. “The first wave of equipment made its way up I-75 from Lexington, Kentucky and is arriving at the Ark’s Williamstown site throughout the day, as excavation and building starts on a massive full-size Noah’s Ark.”

Ham is sticking to a summer 2016 deadline for the park’s opening, but even as construction supposedly gets going after years of delays, Americans United continues to challenge the Ark Park. On August 25, AU asked Beshear not to allow Ark Encounter to receive tax incentives due to its clearly discriminatory hiring practices. This led to some media backlash against the park, and in response Ham insisted that the Ark Park will follow anti-discrimination laws.

AiG even added language to employment applications reading, “We provide equal employment opportunities to all qualified employees and applicants for employment without regard to race, religion, sex, age, marital status, national origin, sexual orientation, citizenship status, veteran status, disability or any other legally protected status.”

But if job-seekers go deeper into the application, they are asked to “provide brief details of current church membership and attendance,” give their “Salvation testimony” and queried, “How old would you estimate the earth to be?” In addition, they are told to “write the confirmation of your agreement with the AiG Statement of Faith.” 

The job posting goes on to say that “work at Ark Encounter is not just a job, it is also a ministry” that entails “edifying believers and evangelizing the lost.”

And despite Ham’s claims that atheists and anti-Christians are out to tear down Ark Encounter because they hate fundamentalism, some Christians have actually come out against the Ark Park as well.

“Let’s be clear here: This is not an ‘atheist vs. believer,’ or a ‘secularist vs. religious’ issue…,” David B. Whitlock, a Kentucky Baptist minister, said in a Sept. 1 column for the Elizabethtown News-Enterprise. “Receiving tax money to promote religion is no small matter. That’s the real issue here. If Muslims, or Hindus, or Buddhists or any religious group wanted to establish theme parks celebrating stories in their sacred books and at the same time wanted to accept tax incentives, the objection from Americans United would, I hope, be the same.”

The objection absolutely would be the same, said AU’s Lynn. He noted that AiG has boasted about how the park will seek to win converts to fundamentalism.

Zovath, for example, told the Cour­ier-Journal in July, “There will be an effort made to present the Gospel at the park. That has not been hidden at all from anything we have said.”

Lynn said such evangelistic efforts should not be supported with taxpayer dollars.

“It doesn’t matter to us if Ham builds replicas of Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel or even the Garden of Eden – provided he does it without help from taxpayers,” Lynn said. “We don’t have a problem with AiG’s Christian message, but we do have a problem with a Christian message that gets government support.”