It seems that Ken Ham didn’t like the Newsweek story published over the weekend about his Noah’s Ark theme park, Ark Encounter, and how it’s being funded. He lashed out on his website, criticizing both the magazine and the reporter who wrote the piece, Lindsay Tucker. His frustration and the magazine’s coverage involves his desperate attempt to hide and distract the public from knowing the truth behind his park’s finances.
Ham’s blog post with its dad-joke title, Newsweek or “News-Weak”?, is misguided when you consider the substance that makes a story weak or solid. That substance is what Ham publicly denounces — it’s evidence, and Tucker has it.
The first half of his rant, which came two days after the Newsweek story was published, was an attempt to strip the “US media” of its credibility, comparing it to sensationalist British tabloids, and dismissing Tucker, who holds a Masters degree in publishing and magazine writing from Emerson College, as nothing more than a “commentator.”
Over the years, AiG has witnessed that the US media have become more like the tabloidish and sensationalist British and Australian press. Not just content with reporting straight news, more newspapers, magazines, and news websites today are injecting commentary and editorial bias into their coverage of stories. This is particularly true when they report on Christian news items.
This growing editorial slant was certainly on display in a recent Newsweek article about our Ark Encounter project, which was circulated worldwide through the well-trafficked website of MSN. In what can only be described as a hit piece that resembled the worst of the British tabloid media, this well-read Newsweek article needs to be addressed by AiG.
Before we get into the main points in his post, meant to dodge the meat of the Newsweek story, let’s step back a moment and talk about the money issue first.
Tucker first reached out to me back in November, knowing I had been collecting public records and financing information about Answers in Genesis that I used in a Friendly Atheist post about their tax incentive abuse. We kept in contact and exchanged notes over the next couple of months leading up to her Newsweek story. Tucker was fully committed to investigating this story and spent a week in Kentucky interviewing everyone she could, including Ham, AiG manager Mike Zovath, and Williamstown Mayor Rick Skinner — key players who knew plenty about the park’s financing. Also worth noting: She has transcripts and audio recordings backing up her reporting.
The biggest contention in this whole kerfuffle is over the TIF (tax increment financing), which is the indirect way the Ark Encounter ministry will pay for itself. It’s like financial masturbation, if you will, because it’s self-fulfilling. The $62 million in bond debts will be paid back, in part, using the property taxes from the developed lot, money that will also be used to fund future attractions. It’s a circular magic trick! But you and I know magic isn’t real, so how does it work? It’s free money for the developer because they were going to be paying property taxes anyway; however, it cheats the city and county out of money they would have received if the TIF wasn’t in place. Answers in Genesis has a TIF agreement allowing 75% of their property taxes over the next 30 years to refund the project.
Ham insists on describing the TIF in a condescending manner in his post, even conceding that he hardly understands it himself. But not understanding a topic never stopped him before. Why start now?
Most people do not understand this complicated incentive (called Tax Increment Financing) that is common across the nation, and I hope I won’t lose you here. …
Now, we simply don’t mention the TIF to reporters because perhaps 1 in 1,000 readers would even know what it is, it is highly complicated, and I don’t understand it all myself. …
At the risk of your eyes glazing over regarding this TIF matter…
He’s setting the stage to make us feel too dumb to understand what’s going on — the same trick his whole Creation ministry is based upon. But it’s not as complicated as he makes it sound.
Tucker explained the concept in her story:
What neither of them [Ham or Zovath] 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.
An AiG attorney bit back at this with:
The author is even more wrong regarding the Ark Encounter TIF. In most circumstances the payroll tax revenue is shared between the project and the government. This means that a portion of the payroll taxes that would otherwise be available for general government use is used as an incentive for the private project. In the case of the Ark Encounter, there is no general payroll tax in effect. Therefore, while the Ark Encounter will receive the payroll taxes from the project, there are no payroll taxes being diverted from the government, since neither Williamstown nor Grant County imposes any payroll taxes on its businesses.
Oddly, that clarification makes them look even worse. But just so we’re on the same page, Answers in Genesis is taking money directly from their lowest paid employees to help pay off the very place they work. Which is exactly what we said earlier. The money isn’t going back into the community, as Tucker stated, because it’s not going into the bank accounts of the local citizens.
Then, after Ham condescendingly refers to Tucker as a “young ‘Woodward and Bernstein’ wannabe” and someone who doesn’t have a clue about the subject she’s covering, he states:
Furthermore, the TIF has nothing to do with funding the Ark’s construction. TIF benefits that might come to us begin after the Ark is open. But the unwary Newsweek reader is led to the false conclusion that money is being taken out of government coffers and away from social programs to fund the Ark.
This is just crafty language.
“The TIF has nothing to do with funding the Ark’s construction” is only literally true — the Ark (the giant boat) is being funded by donations. But the developed land around it is what the TIF is funding. Impressive mind trick, but not quite Jedi-worthy.
Here is the actual wording from the TIF document confirming the money will be used to pay off bonds:
As for “money taken out of government coffers,” that wasn’t what Tucker, or anybody, said regarding the TIF. It’s commonly understood that the front-end money is coming from junk bonds — the ones that come with a high risk to investors, without the developer being held accountable if the project fails. But where the money was taken from “government coffers” is the City of Williamstown paying $175,000 toward the purchase of Ark Encounter’s land parcel, $19,000 toward a real estate agent fee, and selling 98 acres of land to Answers in Genesis for $1.
Back to Ham:
When the commentator says that a “boatload” of money is going back to the Ark through the TIF, we must point out that it is ultimately offset by the great amount of money that the Ark will pour into the community. That’s why incentives like these are offered, and yet the Newsweek commentator somehow thinks this was nefarious for us to pursue and must be exposed. And why has this commentator singled us out about TIFs and not other projects in TIF districts?
Just look at the trends. For example, attendance at the Creation Museum has been declining yearly. And according to Answers in Genesis’ 2013 tax returns (ending in the 2014 fiscal year), the company is reporting losses in the millions. By the Creation Museum’s seventh year of operation, expenses were $8.1 million while revenue was $4.9 million. What keeps AiG afloat are donations and publication sales — not the attractions. These are the red flags that should matter to the citizen taxpayers when it involves their money since Ham’s sales pitch seeks to build this city out of the dirt but may ultimately leave it in worse shape, liability-free.
But even after we explain over and over again why we’re not okay with tax dollars funding a ministry under the guise of an amusement park that unabashedly discriminates in hiring — and even after losing their sales taxes incentives for violating the law which said they could not discriminate — they insist they’re being victimized.
The Newsweek commentator apparently believes Christian organizations should not receive TIFs, even though it’s entirely legal. In her world, all groups can apply for incentives except Christian ones. It only reveals her anti-Christian bias and a desire to see Christian believers treated as second-class citizens.
That’s not true at all. And it’s just another attempt to slam Tucker’s character. It’s all very suggestive of a culture that doesn’t value women as equals. Just look at the language Ham uses to describe her and her work:
Some of what she writes is just plain childish and silly, as she seems to be cutesy and also sensationalistic.
He further proves this by his actions, like when he didn’t stand to greet her when she was brought into his office for an introduction. Ham later claimed this was due to his bad back, but at the time, there was no explanation or apology for what seemed like a rude gesture.
Also bizarre is how defensive Ham gets over a construction sign that Tucker saw at the Ark site.
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.
It was just a straight-forward mention of the sign’s existence, but Ham furiously denied it. (It’s not the first time he’s denied something everyone else sees pretty damn clearly.)
Really? I was at the Ark site yesterday, and I saw no signs saying “danger.” Even if there was such a sign, the Ark is a very busy construction site and workers need to be careful about potential dangers! By law, other kinds of warning signs need to be posted, and we comply. But the word danger? No.
For whatever reason, it matters a lot to him. So here’s that exact sign, as Tucker described it, on the trail to the Ark. The sign that Ham says doesn’t exist.
As for Tucker’s line about the park being hidden from public scrutiny, there’s truth in that as well. When I visited Kentucky for an Ark Encounter press conference last October, I struck up conversation with AiG board member Dan Chin before the presentation. When I asked Chin if the Ark was visible from the highway, he said, “No, and that’s kind of intentional.” It was followed by a smile that implied I knew what he meant. My assumption was that they didn’t even want to give a peek away for free, but who knows what he was referring to.
Another lie in Ken Ham’s response that needs to be addressed is that Creationists are not trying to get equal time in public school classrooms.
In addition, the commentator’s claim that creationists “argue that their worldview deserves as much classroom time in public schools” suggests that she believes AiG wants to force the teaching of creation into government-run schools. We have written many times that we do not, arguing that mandating a creationist curriculum into schools will probably be counter-productive.
Maybe they wrote that, but a video posted to AiG’s website contradicts that very idea. It describes a full-on Christian infiltration of the public school system — including the teaching of Creationism and preaching of the Gospel.
… The grassroots approach would see Christian individuals in various communities rise up to take positions on local school boards, and other curriculum committees where they can influence the content of the teaching in public schools. Christian teachers in the public schools can consider themselves missionaries in a hostile environment, as well as students in the public schools. Those people can be sharing the gospel with people in the public school systems. As the gospel of Jesus Christ has proclaimed, people recognize their need for a Savior and the authority of the Bible, and how it should influence the thinking in every area of our life. Then the Bible will again become the authority for people making decisions in our culture and in our society, as more and more individuals come to a saving knowledge of Christ, and trust the Bible, that foundation will be restored in our nation. And we can see the biblical Creation model taught again in the public school systems as society as a whole changes.
I guess Ham’s right in saying they don’t want equal time — they want 100% of the time.
After all the claims are made, the only side with any supporting evidence is the narrative offered by Tucker. Despite Ken Ham’s ability to type the things he wants you to believe are true, there exist audio interviews with Mayor Skinner and Mike Zovath confirming that AiG’s property tax revenue will go back to paying the initial developer bonds and funding the building of future attractions. The “danger” sign is standing tall, and we have a photo to prove it. AiG does, in fact, claim on its website that they want Creationism taught in public schools. AiG is not eligible for tax incentives because it’s a company that discriminates in hiring. We know the Creation Museum is a financial burden to the AiG enterprise, because their own tax forms say so.
Ham offers nothing tangible to back up his claims. Much like a museum without artifacts, he makes assertions without evidence — assertions which critics have proven wrong with evidence.
Once the Newsweek article was published online, making it the most mainstream publication to pick up the story so far, it must have become overwhelmingly apparent to Ken Ham and friends that they live in a very small bubble. The comment thread on the article was about 90% hostile to the idea of the park’s funding and ideology, and many commenters seemed to be hearing about it for the first time.
One comment in defense of the park really stood out as being suspicious.
It read like a commercial, recommending people invest in surrounding land, even open a restaurant. Hell, it sounded like something Ken Ham would (and has) said.
But if you clicked on the commenter’s profile, it’s evident that the Facebook account associated with it was only created minutes before the comment went up. No friends, no information, no posts.
I’m no detective, but something about this Facebook profile smells fishy.
Or maybe it smells more like a pork product.