Ever since Creationist Ken Ham opened Ark Encounter, nearly a year ago, skeptics have been sounding the alarms about how bad a deal this is for the people of Williamstown, Kentucky. And not just because of the fake “science” it presents to children and gullible adults.
When Ham and his team at Answers in Genesis were looking for a location for their $100 million attraction, they pitched it as a way to create jobs. One projection (from the state) said Ark Encounter was “expected to annually generate… a minimum of 3,000 new full-time equivalent jobs.”
Unfortunately, those jobs turned out to be available only for people who agreed to Answers in Genesis’ fundamentalist Christian worldview. Even wannabe janitors had to agree the Earth was only 6,000 years old and gay marriage was an abomination.
Besides that, the city of Williamstown, which desperately wanted to be the home of the Ark, offered Ham’s team $62 million in junk bonds if they build the ship in their backyard. Grant County (which Williamstown is in) gave Ham’s team 98 acres of land for $1. (That’s not a typo. Just a single dollar.) And 2% of all employees’ paychecks were going back to Ark Encounter to help them pay off the loans, so neither the government nor the employees were getting everything they deserved.
Why would a city and county do all this? Because they hoped that the attraction would be so popular, it would increase tourism, liven up what was in many ways a dying town, create well-paying jobs, and be good for all surrounding businesses.
The state of Kentucky even promised Ark Encounter a tax incentive worth up to $18.25 million over the next decade based on attendance and sales. (Lawsuits to stop that, due to the discriminatory hiring, were unsuccessful.)
But the tourism aspect of all this hasn’t panned out either.
Keep in mind that the bad weather depresses attendance in the winter, kids are in school during the surrounding months, weekdays are usually going to be emptier, etc. So they’re hoping for a huge jump in numbers over the summer. That’s what you’d expect at any theme park. But Ark Encounter isn’t like Six Flags. The novelty is eventually going to wear off. Unlike a real museum, there’s no need to see this train wreck more than once.
All of that has contributed to a general malaise among people in the area who were hoping for more.
Grant County still has the same small number of non-chain restaurants and hotels it had last December. That’s when residents voted to go from a “moist” county with limited alcohol sales to “wet” county for alcohol sales.
Now that bars are allowed, there haven’t been any takers.
“I’m shocked, I’ll be honest with you,” Wood said. “We were told [the vote in favor of alcohol sales would] bring restaurants, particularly with the ark. It hasn’t.”
Wood added: The Ark has “been a great thing but it’s not brought us any money.”
And just today, we’re getting even more evidence that things are still rough in Grant County and Williamsburg specifically.
The Washington Post, in an otherwise frustratingly glowing piece about the Ark, also quotes Steve Wood griping about how the county got the raw end of the deal:
“In terms of revenue for the county, we don’t get too much from them,” says the county’s chief executive, Stephen Wood. The Ark Encounter negotiated a vastly discounted 30-year rate on property taxes in 2013 under a previous administration. “I hate it, but that’s the deal,” says Wood.
The article also says:
… a year after the Ark opened, downtown Williamstown, about two miles from the tourist attraction, still isn’t much more than a collection of resale and “antiques” shops and shuttered storefronts. At lunchtime on a spring weekday, Main Street was devoid of pedestrians, tour buses or open restaurants, except for a coffee shop with a tattoo parlor in the back.
You could argue that it’s a chicken and egg problem. Low attendance at Ark Encounter means there’s no incentive to build new businesses. But a lack of things to do in the area also means people aren’t eager to visit Ark Encounter. Everyone wants to blame the other side for not doing their part. Either way, there hasn’t been a significant uptick in tourism.
Still, the Post notes, Ark Encounter plans to keep adding new bits and pieces to the current boat.
The founders hope to open a new attraction every year. Next up is a 2,500-seat auditorium for events at the Ark Encounter, scheduled to open next spring. The Noah-era walled city comes after that. “Picture Disney Main Street with lots of shops, food and fun things to see,” says [AiG’s Mike] Zovath.
That might sound enticing… but you know where else you can see Main Street, U.S.A.? Disney World. Sure, it’s more expensive, but your kids are going to enjoy it a hell of a lot more. And how many more people are going to visit the Ark because of a new auditorium? Are there people out there thinking, “I wasn’t going to visit the Ark, but shit, there’s a new lecture hall, so I really need to take my kids now”?
Perhaps the saddest story about how Ark Encounter hasn’t helped the community involves the mayor of Williamstown, Rick Skinner. His family opened up a furniture store in 1953 and they’ve been running it for the past 64 years. That’ll come to an end this summer, because sales aren’t what they used to be.
Some of that is the result of competition. People are buying more furniture from IKEA and over the internet instead of visiting a local mom-and-pop store.
But, according to the Grant County News, Skinner believes it’s more than that.
“I thought that Williamstown could be revived with the Ark and we would see an increase, not that it would help sell furniture, but we would see more traffic and more prosperity in Williamstown,” Skinner said. “And, that didn’t happen.”
Referring to the Ark, he added:
“If they can’t make it, how are you going to encourage the new businesses to come in? It’s going to take us developing hotels and motels. When they start staying in Williamstown instead of Northern Kentucky, then we’re going to see them exploring at nights after they clean up from being at the Ark and come to the downtown. Until we get the motels and hotels, I do not see that happening.”
He’s not entirely blaming Ark Encounter, but he is implying that if Ark Encounter was more successful, it would have helped everybody. (It hasn’t been, and it didn’t.) The lack of hotels and other businesses hasn’t helped, either.
Everyone else will just have to keep waiting for a miracle.
(Thanks to Ed for the link)