If you were in charge of building an evangelical theme park centered on a “historically accurate” Noah’s Ark that would cost $73 million just to break ground, how would you raise the money?
If you’re Ken Ham, the owner of the young-earth ministry Answers in Genesis, the Creation Museum, and the developer behind the Ark Encounter – the real life evangelical theme park in question – the clear answer is “a mixture of junk bonds and tax incentives.”
Back in 2010, Ham started pursuing $18 million in sales tax rebates from the state of Kentucky. Desperate for something – anything – that might bring tourism money into the state, Kentucky gave serious consideration to the suggestion.
To help convince the state to fund his park, Ham reached out to America’s Research Group to estimate the kind of attendance his park would bring in. The decision to reach out to America’s Research Group was an easy one for Ham – its president was Britt Beemer, the co-author of Ham’s book on how to make children stay in church, Already Gone. Also easy was the decision to base the estimated attendance figures off of Ham’s initial theme park plans – a $172 million dollar, multi-day affair that had shrunk over the course of financial setbacks and lack of interest to the current $73 million dollar project. The resulting estimate was that between 1.2 and 2 million people would visit the park every year. Additionally, Ham proclaimed that the ark park would employ “up to 900 full and part time staff.”
The state of Kentucky was blown away by a southern tourism project unrivaled since Sherman’s March. They gave the tax breaks an initial approval, despite the warnings of some lawmakers that it violated the state’s constitution, as the park had publically proclaimed to promote its fundamentalist Christian message. Just like that, nearly 25% of the ark park’s funding was pretty much in the bag.
Any doubts that Ham would use this money in a way that would violate the separation of church and state should have been put to rest even before the tax breaks were approved, however. A month before getting initial approval for the $18 million, Ham’s ministry posted a job opportunity that required all applicants to make statements agreeing with both creationism, and Answers in Genesis’ statement of faith. Needless to say, this kind of religious discrimination was a pretty straightforward way to violate both state and federal employment laws.
But everything takes a few months to work its way through the state government, and Kentucky didn’t process the hiring issue until after it issued its preliminary approval of the tax breaks. To the shock of some, the staunchly conservative state at the buckle of the Bible Belt put the tax incentives on hold while it investigated the hiring practices. They did, however, give Ham the opportunity to change his mind and promise to actually abide by employment law.
Except Ham refused.
Using his elaborately-constructed corporate system, Ham argued that the tax incentives were for his limited liability company, Ark Encounter. The hiring, however, was done by his non-profit ministry, Answers in Genesis. This, despite the fact that the job title was “CAD Technician Designer, Ark Encounter,” that the role would report to the Lead Technical Designer, also at the Ark Encounter, and that the Ark Encounter company was referred to three times in the job description, while Answers in Genesis was never mentioned.
When that argument didn’t fly, Ham claimed that his Constitutional rights were being violated, and that he had a First Amendment right to the money.
This might sound like Ham is representing himself pro se. He isn’t. Two real, living, breathing attorneys actually signed off on these legal arguments, and they work at a large Midwest firm that is still somehow considered to have some repute.
Kentucky wasn’t convinced. Perhaps because they didn’t like the potentially unconstitutional nature of the tax breaks, or perhaps because the ark park already seemed like a bust – thus far, it had only created 230 jobs, most of them part-time and minimum wage – the state decided to rescind the tax breaks.
Despite the setback, Ham has managed to accumulate numerous other tax breaks and incentives from local governments. The city of Williamstown, Kentucky, where the project is being built, has offered the ark park no less than $62 million in tax increment financing – interest-free loans given to the project by the municipality, and which are paid back with what the state would have received in property taxes. Additionally, Ham has managed to push through an $11 million improvement to I-75, the highway leading into the site of the park.
Construction of the ark continues. It’s set to open on July 7, 2016.