Kentucky’s controversial Ark Encounter park celebrated its inaugural year Friday, but the following day visitors were greeted by its most vocal opponents.
One year in, the attraction featuring a walkable Noah’s Ark modeled after biblical blueprints remains a cultural battleground of sorts.
"Maybe the Ark Encounter Answers in Genesis folks thought, 'OK, you know, initially sure atheists will be upset, but then they'll die down and we'll go on and do our thing," says well-known Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta. "It's like no, no, no. We still care about science now."
Mehta joined several guests, including two religious speakers, in denouncing the Bible-themed park. His opening one-liner: "It's been one year since this ark opened, which is about 14 seconds in creationist time."
The detractors warmed up a crowd of about 75 demonstrators before they marched – two-at-a-time à la the Genesis story – to the front gate of the park. All the way garnering some horn honks, a few curious expressions, and at least one middle finger.
"Don't waste your money!" one protester warned.
The opponents argued the park hasn’t delivered economically for the surrounding community, and supplying the attraction with up to $18 million in sales tax breaks violates the separation of church and state. Many point to the "statement of faith" park employees must sign indicating they adhere to the organization's literalist interpretation of the Christian scriptures.
"They won't hire LGBT, Catholics, Jews. Anybody that doesn't agree with them," says Jen Scott with the Tri-State Freethinkers, which partnered with the national American Atheists to host the sequel to last year's protest of the grand opening.
Meanwhile, life inside the bustling park goes on mostly unaffected.
Ark Encounter training director Patrick Kanewske greets smiling employees and fields one question about the protesters as he exits a shuttle bus. The once sparse area surrounding the main attraction now sports a variety of eateries, gardens, and a fair trade shop. The ark itself also hosts live animals.
"They come in mid- to late-morning and they'll stay through about mid-afternoon," Kanewske says. Visiting today are an iguana, a miniature cow, and a basket of hedgehogs.
Nearby, a new exhibit entitled "Why the Bible is True" employs comic-book-style panels to tell the story of college students facing challenges to their faith. On the same floor is the boat's towering "door," a favorite selfie spot, Kanewske notes.
Much debate has centered on the park's attendance rates, and whether they have translated to satisfactory economic gains for Williamstown. First-year figures released by the park showed more than a million visitors passed through the gates, though that number fell short of the park's market study suggesting somewhere between 1.4 million and 2.2 million.
"This last year wasn't really a typical year because we didn't have all the bus traffic set up the way it is now," Kanewske says. "We've had upwards of 40 tourists buses coming here on a given day."
While surrounding communities have reported some positive developments, Dry Ridge expects to add up to three new hotels according to WCPO, some local business owners have only witnessed a trickle.
“We do get a few people from the ark, but they don’t really know we’re here,” Country Heart Crafts operator Stormey Vanover tells the Lexington Herald-Leader. “It’s just not impacting us the way we thought it would.”
Mark Looy, co-founder of Answers in Genesis, suggested Williamstown wasn't prepared to handle the influx.
"I would think that it probably takes awhile to catch on to things," Kanewske adds. "Again, you can't dispute the thousands of people that are coming here every day."
The head of training also sees no issue with the park's tax incentives or the organization's signing requirements for employees – the ones critics say amount to discriminatory hiring.
"If you're part of the LGBT community and you have that mindset, it doesn't mix with the statement of faith," he explains.
By 1 p.m., the demonstrators lining the sidewalk along Ark Encounter Way have cleared out and returned to their home base down the hill, next to a highway exit. The day proved less raucous than their first protest, which saw some heated debates break out between protesters and Ark Encounter supporters.
Still, organizers say they plan to make the anti-ark demonstrations an annual event.