A controversial theme park in Grant County is celebrating its first anniversary. But, so far, the Ark Encounter hasn’t floated everybody’s boat.
Taking pictures at the park’s entrance under an amusement park sized orange sign with big white letters announcing "ARK Encounter," the Botcher family from South Milwaukee is enthusiastic about their vacation in Kentucky.
"It’s The Ark so we’re hoping to see the size and get to see some of the animals inside."
Emery and Elaine Botcher made the trip with their daughters seven-year-old Ember and three-year-old Ellison just to see the biblical boat.
Emery Botcher says they heard about the attraction last year and saw a few pictures online of the 510-foot-long structure.
Emery Botcher : " Really it’s the magnitude and the awesomeness that this is an actual reproduction. Just to see it is great .
Elaine: To think that Noah would have been able to build that without any of the technology that we have now is just amazing.
The Botchers didn’t realize the Bible-based theme park just celebrated its one-year anniversary. Like others visiting on this Monday, they were also unaware of any controversy surrounding the attraction. Just days earlier, protesters stood outside the $100 million project denouncing the creationist view of science and the statement of biblical faith park employees have to sign.
Patrick Kanewske: "You know, we really are kind of sheltered from that. We don’t see the controversy here. There were some folks here on Saturday outside the gate. But we really concentrate on making sure our guests are comfortable. We have thousands of guests come here every day."
That’s Patrick Kanewske, director of training and education for the Ark Encounter and the nearby Creation Museum which teaches the earth is 6000 years old.
The Ark opened July 7, 2016 and Kanewske says, since then, over a million people have come through the gates, off from the 1.4 to two million expected.
Kanewske: "Last year wasn’t a typical year. We didn’t have our bus companies all set up. All the commercial buses that have come through since have really increased our numbers…quite a bit. So this next year after this first year anniversary we’re gonna see an explosion."
But the flood of tourists, many with out-of-town license plates, hasn’t done much for Williamstown, a town of 4,000 that hoped to reap some of the benefits.
Last year, Elmer’s General Store opened with an old fashioned soda fountain and nightly banjo music hoping the Ark would help them stay afloat.
Now the doors are closed. The town is quiet. Chairs are stacked up in the window and the only sound is traffic.
Williamstown Mayor Rick Skinner.
Skinner: "Everybody was anticipating more tourists from more business and it just didn’t happen. So he was forced to close. Couldn’t make it."
On this day, just about every shop is closed just because it’s Monday. But there are also several storefronts with "vacant" signs in the windows.
A family-owned furniture store that’s operated for 100 years is now going out of business but Mayor Skinner remains hopeful,
Skinner: "We don’t have the infrastructure in place with hotels, motels and restaurants. But we think when we get that we’ll see the people coming downtown to shop."
The city has implemented a safety assessment fee of 50 cents per ticket to the Ark Encounter.
The fee that went into effect July 1, is to cover the cost of additional police and firefighters plus equipment.
As far as regrets that the Ark has come to Williamstown, Skinner says, despite a few bumps in the road such as discussions over the assessment fee, he’s hopeful for an overall positive relationship with the owners of the Ark Encounter.