With the opening this summer of Ark Encounter—a $100 million, 510 foot-long re-creation of Noah’s Ark, built by a fundamentalist Christian ministry in rural Kentucky with the help of state tax incentives and the sale of $62 million in junk bonds—the business models behind Christian-themed destinations may require a new level of financial faith.
Ark Encounter is the brainchild of Ken Ham, whose outspoken beliefs—the universe is 6,000 years old, humans and dinosaurs co-existed, T-Rex was a vegetarian who lived in the Garden of Eden—led him and his ministry, Answers in Genesis (AIG), to open the nearby Creation Museum in 2007. At a media preview in early July for Ark Encounter, Ham said, “I believe this is going to be one of the greatest Christian outreaches of this era of history.”
Financial documents released by Ark Encounter, LLC—the for-profit company that the non-profit AIG uses to run its new attraction—seem to raise questions about that confidence. The firm lists more than three dozen risks to potential bondholders, including negative cash flow, adverse publicity, environmental regulations, bad weather, and animals in their care getting infectious diseases.
A study commissioned and released by AIG boasts that their biblical attraction will receive a healthy 1.2 million to 2.2 million visitors annually. However, an economic impact review by Hunden Strategic Partners, commissioned by the state of Kentucky, estimates that, in a best case scenario, attendance at Ark Encounter will hit a peak of 640,000 by its third year in operation and then settle near 400,000 attendees per year.
That drop-off would emulate a similar pattern at Ham’s $27 million Creation Museum. Ham and other AIG representatives vigorously deny reports that attendance has fallen off. But the state-commissioned Hunden found that “attendance figures have decreased” each year from 2007 through 2013. A feasibility study released by Ark Encounter in support of its bond offering confirms the Hunden report’s assessment, revealing that Creation Museum attendance has dropped every year, from 404,000 visitors in 2007 to 236,583 in fiscal year 2012-2013 (the most recent year reported). Drop-off or not, Ham believes Ark Encounter will soon buoy its elder sibling.
To deal with this anticipated influx, the Creation Museum plans to nearly triple in size over the next three years. In April, officials in Boone County, Ky., gave the go-ahead for the massive expansion. If Ham’s ambitions appear quixotic, the relics of other Christian destinations reveal a sobering reality. In Connecticut, graffiti covers a stainless steel cross at the remains of the biblical theme park Holy Land USA, which closed in 1984 and in Iowa, cardboard cutouts of Jesus and Saint Peter protrude from a pond outside the recently shuttered Museum of Religious Arts.
In Orlando, Fla., the Holy Land Experience, a Christian theme park and church taken over in 2007 by the Trinity Broadcast Network, is experiencing growing pains of its own. The park bills itself as a living biblical museum, and includes replicas of a Jerusalem street market and Calvary’s Garden Tomb, where many Protestants believe Jesus rose from the dead.
According to HLE tax documents from 2001 through 2013 (the most recent year available), operational expenses have exceeded ticket sales every year since the park’s opening. To make ends meet, the park relies heavily on private donations and tax breaks. In its tax filings, HLE has reported more than $90 million in contributions since 2001, and according to Florida’s Orange County Property Appraiser’s Office, the park’s status as a non-profit has saved it $200,000 a year since 2012.
Ninety miles south of Orlando, in rural Wauchula, Fla., a more provincial— and impassioned—experience awaits visitors to “The Story of Jesus,” a seasonal passion play performed in a cattle arena with a cast of more than 200 volunteers and 100 animals. Produced and directed for more than a quarter century by a 63-year-old local pastor named Mike Graham, who also plays the role of Jesus in the first act, the performance has endured as a beloved tradition to Floridians and other visitors.
Yet even this production may come to an abrupt end. “We were in the red again this year,” Graham said. “We are very possibly at the end of our run after nearly 30 years.” Three years ago, the play’s attendance dropped about 40 percent and never recovered. Graham attributes the decline to their rural location, and to an increase in Christian films that hit the cinema every March and April.
Further north near Washington, D.C., localized passion plays appear to be flourishing rather than declining, largely to fulfill the spiritual needs of one of this country’s fastest growing Christian groups: Latinos. That demand was on display on Good Friday in Langley Park, Md., a suburb of D.C. An estimated 4,000 Catholics marched along the normally congested New Hampshire Avenue in a Via Crucis procession sponsored by the largely Latino parish Saint Camillus, which draws attendees from nearby churches and Latino neighborhoods.
Soon to eclipse all of these destinations—in budget and ambition—is the 430,000 square foot Museum of the Bible, set to open in November 2017 three blocks south of Washington’s Mall. Privately funded by the wealthy family of Hobby Lobby founder David Green, the $400 million museum will reportedly house 40,000 artifacts related to the Bible. Should the museum meet its evangelical goals while remaining fiscally sound, a prospect that has evaded many of its predecessors, it could provide Christian visitors to the nation’s capitol an alternative to the Smithsonian. It could also provide its creators, and the broader evangelical community, an ideological foothold in a city founded on separation of church and state.