It’s old news to our regular readers, but there’s been a lot of press coverage lately about the opening of Ark Encounter, the religious theme park being built by Ken Ham (ol’ Hambo), the world’s holiest man who knows more about religion and science than everyone else. He’s the Australian entrepreneur who has become the ayatollah of Appalachia, famed not only for his creationist ministry, Answers in Genesis (AIG), but also for the infamous, mind-boggling Creation Museum.
The one thing that is always absent from the news — and from ol’ Hambo’s website — is a report of ticket sales. We must conclude from Hambo’s silence on the subject that an embarrassing number of tickets remain unsold, even for the grand opening day scheduled for 07 July — which is only two weeks away.
There’s a long article about Hambo and his ark in the Cincinnati Enquirer of Cincinnati, Ohio, just across the border from Northern Kentucky where Ken Ham’s creationist empire is located. This is the headline: Who pays for the new ark? Taxpayers Help. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:
Just how do you pay for one of the world’s most famous and largest wooden boats? No one knows just how Noah did it for the original ark, for the Bible isn’t clear on how he was able to construct what must have been an engineering marvel at the time, much less pay for it. When it comes to the $92 million replica being erected in a Kentucky field about 40 miles south of Cincinnati, organizers paved a somewhat clearer path. The project received junk bond rating status, suffered through a back-and-forth with state officials over promised tax incentives, and even required the intervention of a federal judge to let those tax breaks continue.
What follows is a long narrative of the financial maneuvers that ol’ Hambo used. It’s an interesting summary of material we’ve discussed in the past:
[AIG first] used a series of bond issues and donations to raise $60 million of the money necessary to build the 510-foot long attraction. But the group also landed a series of local and state tax incentives worth $80 million over 20 years. That leveraged Answers in Genesis’s foray into the bond market in the first place, experts say. And the bonds themselves? If anything forces the ark to shut down, they’re only as valuable as the paper they are printed on, bond market experts say.
That’s because they are not guaranteed the way most so-called “church bonds” are, meaning the owners of the bonds absorb any losses and Answers in Genesis holds little risk. The city of Williamstown, which issued the debt as municipal bonds on behalf of the ministry and the ark project, also did not guarantee them. That leaves the project’s investors on their own.
No problem. Those who bought Hambo’s bonds have faith. Let’s read on:
The rest of the $92 million was raised from private donations. That’s the case even though the Ark Encounter will be run as a for-profit subsidiary of the nonprofit Crosswater Canyon LLC, which is a subsidiary of Answers in Genesis.
Yeah, but it’s a worthy cause. The news article continues:
The ark’s for-profit status means the attraction will need to pay taxes. Through deals with state and local governments, however, those taxes will be substantially lower than a standard tax bill would be.
Isn’t that nice? Here’s more:
In 2014, the state of Kentucky agreed the ark project met the requirements to receive sales tax incentives under its tourism incentive program, which has helped other attractions including several bourbon distilleries. That put the ark in line to receive a state sales taxes rebate worth $18.25 million over 10 years.
But it almost didn’t happen. Last year, the previous Democratic state administration restricted the offer, saying the public’s money should not be used for a religious purpose. The state argued Answers in Genesis’s plan to require a “statement of faith” from all new ark employees would be discriminatory.
Answers in Genesis then sued in federal court and won. U.S. District Court Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove ruled in January that excluding the ark project from the incentive program “is a violation of AiG’s rights under the First Amendment to the federal Constitution.”
Everybody gets that wrong. Hambo claims he won in court and the press always goes along, but it didn’t happen that way. As we reported in Ken Ham’s Ark Wins First Round in Court, after the state decided not to give AIG the sales tax rebates, Hambo went to court and got a preliminary injunction against the state’s freezing him out of the sales tax rebate program. The case was in its very early stages. They weren’t even close to having a trial. But at that point Governor Matt Bevin got involved and decided that the state wouldn’t contest the injunction, and wouldn’t take any further action against the tax rebate scheme. So AIG won, but it was a political, not a judicial victory. Nevertheless, Hambo — and the press — routinely describe the litigation as if it were a landmark court decision in Hambo’s favor.
The Cincinnati Enquirer discusses other goodies Hambo has received:
The state is also building a new ramp off of Interstate 75 for the park in the next year at a cost of $10 million. It did the same thing in 2006 for the Kentucky Speedway one county over.
Fair enough. Traffic is traffic. Another excerpt:
While the state incentives have gotten most of the attention, most of the public finance involvement for the ark has come on the local level. Not only did Williamstown front the bond sale, but the city and county agreed to create a tax incentive district for the area of the ark and surrounding properties. That will create more than $60 million in new tax savings over 30 years, or about the same amount that Answers in Genesis is borrowing through the bond issues.
This is great entrepreneurship! One last excerpt:
In the end, Ham says Answers in Genesis followed all the rules, and feels “blessed” to have been able to pay for the new ark park, even as those who oppose the financing deal won’t give up their protests.
The news story doesn’t mention it, but Governor Bevin has done other favors for Hambo — see Ken Ham’s Ark Will Get State Tax Funds. Additional goodies Hambo has received are mentioned here: Newsweek Story on Hambo’s Ark.
This is one of those rare times when we find ourselves in agreement with ol’ Hambo. He has indeed been blessed — at least so far. But we’re still waiting for news about ticket sales. How many droolers will buy tickets and pay for parking to visit the ark? Why would anyone go out of his way to see the thing? There will be many of them, of course, at least at first, but will it be enough to make the whole thing profitable? We shall see.
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