Grant County News recently ran this exclusive Q&A with Ken Ham, CEO and founder of Answers in Genesis, the Ark Encounter, and Creation Museum.
July 7, 2016, was a “goosebumps day.” I had that same feeling two days earlier when we held our private open house, where more than 7,000 of our supporters turned out—along with dozens of the world’s media. It was fantastic to see so many family members and friends travel here from all over the globe on those two days.
The state-mandated closing of tourist attractions for three months in 2020 was a very difficult time for us—and for the local B&Bs, hotels, restaurants, and others that have come to rely so much on the enormous number of Ark visitors coming to Grant County.
It took a monumental effort by our staff to get the massive ship done in time. I was so grateful on July 7 for our hard-working construction workers, designers, support staff, and others who met the opening day deadline. And yes, another emotion I had that day was “relief”—that after years of planning and building, with several obstacles to clear along the way, I could gaze up at that magnificent Ark and praise God it was done.
Of course, nothing is ever truly “done” at the Ark Encounter as we continually add, upgrade, and modify over time.
The state-mandated closing of tourist attractions for three months in 2020 was a very difficult time for us—and for the local B&Bs, hotels, restaurants, and others that have come to rely so much on the enormous number of Ark visitors coming to Grant County. But now as the pandemic is getting behind us, we’re seeing many more people willing to travel. Attendance right now is equal to our excellent 2019 numbers, which was our best year—and on many recent days, attendance has actually exceeded them. On the past two Saturdays, we welcomed over 7,000 guests each day—plus thousands more at the Creation Museum in Petersburg.
Here’s why these excellent numbers are truly impressive and such a blessing: not many motor coaches are arriving, and yet attendance is fantastic. People are only just now becoming comfortable traveling by bus and sitting among other passengers.
Compared to other national attractions, we don’t know of any that are seeing numbers equivalent to or better than their 2019 attendance. Because attendance will only increase as international visitors resume traveling and as bus tours return to full force (on one day in 2019, we had 50 tour buses here), we believe this summer will be our best season ever—in particular with our 40 days and nights of Christian music, August 2–September 10.
Furthermore, we are still getting out the word about the Ark Encounter through national TV ads, media interviews like this one, radio programs, and social media to remind people of this magnificent, family-friendly attraction here in Grant County.
Yes, we are so happy to see guests returning. 2020 was a devastating time for many of us in Grant County during COVID—including for the hospitality industry like local hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, and small businesses that serve the Ark’s visitors. And I think too of the many people who were laid off in the hospitality industry. But things are finally rebounding and at a great clip.
Despite the pandemic, we managed to build a $3 million high-tech Virtual Reality experience, Truth Traveler, funded by a supporter. It opened just in time for our reopening in June 2020. It’s outfitted with special-effects seats that move; people put on special VR headsets to enjoy an immersive experience as they travel back to the time of Noah. The experience is like having a ride. Also, we have added animals to the Ark’s Ararat Ridge Zoo, including lemurs and sloths.
Again, I want to remind Grant County residents that all children 10 and under are free in 2021 with a paying adult accompanying them.
I’ll add too that we have now finished the lower level of the Answers Center where we will have added a state-of-the-art science lab for student programs. Soon, we hope to start fundraising for a Tower of Babel attraction that still needs much planning, design work, budgeting, fundraising, Kentucky tourism and permit approvals, etc. We pray it will help people understand what genetics research and the Bible say about the origin of all the people groups around the world. I can assure you: it will be a fascinating, eye-opening attraction.
Perhaps sometime in 2022, we will add an exceptionally well-done scale model of what Jerusalem may have looked like at the time of Christ. Also, for children we’ll create a themed carousel for them to ride, hopefully to open by next summer. These are just a few of the things we will be adding to our 800-acre property.
A man who manages 10 hotel properties in the region recently thanked us “for being great partners and driving immense amounts of tourism to N. Kentucky; the state owes your organization big time for changing travel in our state.” We hear those kinds of comments from business leaders all the time. Indeed, the Chambers of Commerce in the region are ecstatic about the economic impact. Also, the head of the tourism agency of northern Kentucky has reported “an incredible number of visitors coming to the Ark and Creation Museum and that hotel occupancy in the region is reflecting that. Florence hotels ran close to 77% occupancy in May. The national average was 59.3% as reference.”
By far the biggest challenge we experienced was the three-month government-mandated closure of the Ark last year. We had to temporarily lay off hundreds of staff and lost millions in revenue. When we were able to reopen, getting everything to start back up was also a major challenge. Just obtaining the needed food supplies for our various food venues was very difficult. Our staff worked very hard and so it didn’t take too long for things to be buzzing again, even with so many issues.
Another challenge we’ve faced is to counter some myths about the Ark Encounter. We had to deal with the rumor—even spread by the media, though not the Grant County News—that state money was used to build and open the Ark Encounter. We have had to point out that a check of the state’s treasury would have revealed that not one penny of state money was used before the Ark opened in 2016. The tax incentive involved is a rebate of sales tax collected at an opened attraction—it’s a tourism tax incentive many other facilities receive in Kentucky.
It’s important to note that for every dollar rebated back to us, many more dollars are returned to the state by guest-spending at hotels, restaurants, gas stations, stores, and so on. No money has been taken away from state social programs, road funding, etc. Instead, here’s the bottom line: the Ark’s presence has added millions of dollars to the state’s treasury, local schools, libraries, and so on, not subtracted.
Also, we’ve had to counter the myth that the city of Williamstown is at risk on a $62 million Ark bond. The bonds are “private activity bonds” and are not a debt of the issuer—only the borrower, the Ark Encounter. Some opponents of our Christian message continue to fuel these “urban legends” in the hope they will undermine the tremendous success we are seeing. But most people have awakened to these untruths that sometimes percolate in the area.
Many guests I’ve spoken to after they have visited the Ark Encounter have told me how appreciative they are to be able to come to a family friendly, God-honoring attraction.
Today, our biggest challenge is that we still need to hire many more staff right now and our busy summer season is already here. We hope that as state and federal checks start slowing down to unemployed residents, we’ll soon be seeing many more applications from the residents of Grant County and nearby counties for our various openings, including for seasonal staff. See www.ArkEncounter.com/jobs.
By the way, it’s sad for us to report that some of our staff who were laid off for a few months starting in March 2020 due to COVID still haven’t received their unemployment checks from the state.
Also, construction costs, especially for wood and steel, have skyrocketed this year. Projects already in the plans at the Ark Encounter are now becoming much more expensive to build.
Yes, these are big challenges we are facing right now.
The Ark Encounter and Creation Museum are bringing thousands of people into Northern Kentucky every day. Our research shows that over 92% of those who visit our attractions are coming from outside Kentucky. These guests of ours are bringing dollars that would not normally be spent in this state. What an opportunity for local businesses to capitalize on this phenomenon.
Many guests I’ve spoken to after they have visited the Ark Encounter have told me how appreciative they are to be able to come to a family-friendly, God-honoring attraction. Many of them have also said the quality of the Ark Encounter exceeds that of places like Disney World.
As we continue to expand our attractions, including our zoo, we will see more and more people wanting to visit this region. We are also finding out that many of our guests are deciding to stay for a few days in the area, not only to spend more time at our facilities but to visit other attractions. Northern Kentucky has become the biggest faith-based tourist destination in the US and of course, this has had a significant financial impact on the entire region. Our organization employs a total of around 700 full-time staff (salaried and hourly) and up to 600 seasonal staff. So, we are a significant employer in the area.
I encourage readers to visit our world-renowned attraction. Remember: children 10 and under are free this year. You’ll see so many wonderful changes and additions!