John Oliver: Ark Encounter is “Economic Development” Gone Horribly Wrong

On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver spent the bulk of his show talking about economic development and how cities can go overboard in offering tax breaks to companies in the hopes they’ll get jobs and revenue in return… even though, all too often, those don’t follow.

For example, Oliver mentioned all the cities trying to land the new Amazon headquarters. Newark, New Jersey is offering one of the richest companies in the world $7 billion in potential tax incentives, which is money that won’t be going to local schools even though Amazon can clearly afford it.

But the best example he brought up was Ark Encounter.

Despite a legal fight, Kentucky famously gave Ken Ham‘s organization approximately $18 million over ten years to build the tourist attraction. Answers in Genesis was only allowed to build the boat in the city of Williamstown after they promised the city help with boosting local businesses and lots of jobs.

Oliver focused on how those jobs weren’t exactly for everybody…

… A few years ago, Kentucky took a big swing on this:

A full-size replica of Noah’s Ark is drawing thousands of visitors to Williamstown, Kentucky.

… This is the Ark Encounter, a chapter from Genesis told on a $100 million budget. Four floors of Noah, his family, and beasts, great and small. The project received $18 million in Kentucky tax incentives.

$18 million of tax breaks for a gigantic Ark museum! And I’m not saying that that is inherently a bad idea — I do kind of want to see this thing, especially as its website genuinely has a section devoted to the question: “What about all the manure?”

The answer, apparently, is slatted floors or multiple-level cages. Which is really not a good answer, because you do not want to be the animal on the lowest animal of that ship.

And while the Ark clearly created some jobs, there were some caveats to those positions.

Critics complain of discrimination in hiring: Only Christians, no gays or lesbians, and single people have to sign a chastity pledge.

Oh, come on! Aside from the homophobia, chastity is a pretty weird rule to put in place for a museum that’s pretty much a giant replica of a floating fuck zoo. They weren’t bought in two by two so that everyone would have a swim buddy! They were on that boat to fuuuuuuuck. (To fuuuuuuuuck.)

But the justification for taking a gamble on a gigantic Ark was that it would be a boon to the whole area. And to hear one local official tell it, the economic impact has been underwhelming.

The Ark’s success has not had the ripple effect many hoped it would… Downtown Williamstown, which was expecting increased car and foot traffic, has almost as many empty store fronts as occupied store fronts.

[Reporter:] What’s it meant for downtown Williamstown?

[Grant County Judge Executive Steve Wood:] Nothing. I don’t mean to sound negative in this interview, but there’s nothing here.

Yeah, and that kind of makes sense, because once you’ve spent three hours walking around a wooden boat with sexually frustrated tour guides and haunted by the mental image of a miserable zebra neck-deep in shit because apparently decks were assigned alphabetically, you’re probably gonna skip lunch in town!

Ken Ham has repeatedly claimed on his website that Ark Encounter is good for the economy… even though he won’t publicly release how many visitors are coming each month, and even though he always cites a city that’s not Williamstown when he talks about how hotels are occupied and businesses are doing well, and even though he blames Williamstown for its own economic struggles, and even though Ham fought back when the city wanted to assess a safety fee of $0.50 per ticket to make sure they could accommodate the emergency needs of visitors to the community.

It’s all an expensive reminder to the people of Williamstown that they made a deal with a man who always wanted to take advantage of them. They didn’t listen to the critics. They didn’t care about the scientists. And they didn’t do the math.

But at least they gave us a wonderful segment from John Oliver.

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