A new year and a new administration in Frankfort means it's time to check in with Ken Ham and the Yabba Dabba D'oh. The new Noah's Ark Encounter that's being built off tens of millions of taxpayer dollars and will finally open this July as Newsweek's Lindsey Tucker takes a look.
Despite many competitive advantages, including buying a 99-acre parcel of land from the city for a mere dollar, the $101 million project has been plagued for five years by setbacks that include a lack of public support, unfruitful fundraising efforts and a bitter lawsuit over $18 million in tax incentives that the state withheld due to church-state separation concerns. But none of this has discouraged Ham, who says his ark could draw as many as 2 million visitors in its first year, although such projections are highly disputed.
Last month, I flew to Kentucky to meet Ham and tour the ark site and AiG’s design studio. The ark—which is still being built at the end of a very long, carefully guarded dirt road with a sign marked “Danger… Keep out”—is hidden from public scrutiny, and for good reason. In order to incentivize building there, Williamstown declared the ark site and the surrounding 1.25 miles a tax increment financing (TIF) district, which is a fancy way of saying that over the next 30 years, 75 percent of sales and real estate taxes generated within the area will go back to fund Ark Encounter. There’s also an employment tax for workers in the district, but more on that shortly.
Ham didn’t stand up when an assistant shuffled me into his office one Friday afternoon. He has railed against the media time and time again for, he says, falsely claiming that taxpayer money is going toward building the ark. When he speaks, he does so slowly, his words even and calculated. “No Kentucky taxpayer money is going to build the Ark Encounter,” he tells me. Several times.
Ham is telling the truth, but it’s a literal interpretation of the truth. The money used to build Ark Encounter came from donations of almost $30 million, plus $62 million in high-risk, unrated municipal bonds backed by the project’s future revenues. If Ark Encounter never makes significant profits (and bond documents warn that it may not), neither the city nor AiG is on the hook for the bond money. However, according to Mike Zovath, chief actions officer for AiG and Ark Encounter, the millions in tax dollars that will be rebated through the formation of the aforementioned TIF district could go toward repaying the bonds and funding future attractions. What neither of them mentioned in conversations with me or in their many blog posts on the subject is that, as part of the TIF agreement, employees working within the TIF district will be subject to a 2 percent employment tax on gross wages for the next 30 years. In other words, $2 out of every $100 earned by people working at or around the park will go directly to paying off the attraction. So while tax dollars might not actually have been used to build the ark, a boatload that would otherwise go back into the community will instead be used to pay off Ark Encounter’s debt.
Nice scam if you can get it, huh? Workers, many of whom will be making minimum wage, are the ones who will be taxed to pay off the park's debt for the next 30 years. But let's not lose sight of the true function of the park:
There’s more than just public money at stake. Other Ark Encounter attractions will reportedly include a petting zoo, a first-century village and so-called teaching exhibits with titles like “Flood Geology” (how the separation of continents and marine fossils found on mountaintops “are a direct result of the flood” ) and “The Ice Age” (AiG insists there was only one). Famed scientist and educator Bill Nye, who came under fire from some scientists in 2014 for dueling with Ham in a televised evolution vs. creationism debate, warns that using commonwealth dollars to suppress science is bad for the whole country. “Raising a generation of young people who are confused about the natural history of the Earth is not in our best interest,” he says. “This project is going to slow the response of voters in the Commonwealth to climate change and it’s going to hold us all back.” Given the way AiG rejects scientific evidence, he thinks it might not be so bad if the ark park goes the way of the Titanic.
Now, should the ark park, well, sink during the Bevin years, how much will ol' MIT grad Matt put into saving the place? I think we'll find out before too long.