I was impressed with the Ark Encounter exhibit in Williamstown, Kentucky located in Grant County between Lexington and Cincinnati, Ohio. For a religious oriented theme park in its infancy of development there was a lot to like. Ken Ham built the Ark there on a scale that certainly puts it on the map globally. When I visited at the one year anniversary of its opening, I noted cars from almost every state in America in the parking lot and the place was packed mid-week during the day. That provoked me to do a little research into the economic impact that the Ark Encounter has had on Williamstown over a short period of time when I ran across this video of Steve Wood, a judge-executive for Williamston who had such a terrible attitude that I have to try to help this guy out—for the sake of Grant County. There is no reason for Grant County to file for bankruptcy when such a wonderful tourist attraction like the Ark Encounter is in your neighborhood so let’s get into some basics on economic development discussion.
The first problem with what Steve Wood said was that he hoped that with the Ark that business would come pouring it. Dude, you have to soft sell the economic opportunities to investors. They aren’t going to just go to the Ark Encounter and say—hey, let’s build the next Chick-fil-A at this highway exit, or let’s locate the next car manufacturer at Williamstown. You have to at least promote the region and offer some incentives. You can’t just hope that things will drop in your lap. What Ken Ham did was just the first step—a $100 million dollar investment into a region that had nothing going for it before July of 2016. It’s only been a year and roughly a million or so people have visited the new attraction and of those people only about 1% of those visitors have any connection to the kind of investments needed to develop more economic impact into Williamstown. Of that roughly 10,000 potential investors even fewer are in a position to have enough liquid capital to make a move at this time, but when they are ready, you want them to have Grant County in mind.
My first thoughts when entering and leaving the Ark Encounter was that there was a gold mine of opportunity there. At Dry Ridge just one exit to the north there is a Cracker Barrel restaurant but south of that until Georgetown there isn’t much to provoke a traveler into stopping for gas, food, or anything else. There is no reason a new manufacturing plant blooming under the new Trump economy wouldn’t have its eye on Grant County for primarily the highway access, a friendly government environment and good Christian labor. My first thoughts were that the region likely had access to good, wholesome people who come from backgrounds of hard work and if they go to church dependably on Sunday then they are likely to show up for work during the week so they can earn enough money to give 10% back to the church. A good, reliable workforce is always a concern for any company. But this doesn’t happen overnight. If I’m thinking these things then so are those other 10,000 people mentioned. Among them there are probably five or six good leads that could save Grant County from bankruptcy. It is your job Steve Wood to protect them as they put their money down onto the table to embark on something that might take at least 5 years to develop from inception to ribbon cutting. By then you’ll have to trust Ken Ham to do his part and continue expanding his Christian amusement park to a scale that does rival something like a Universal Studios or a Disney World for the Bible Belt.
Before any of the big commercial enterprises come you must have restaurants and hotels because those bring people and tax money off the highway and into Williamstown. There needs to be a few hotel outfits that locate at that Ark Encounter exit to give all those people driving from Kansas, North Dakota and Montana somewhere to stay for the weekend and they need to be decent places. One thing that is very specific about Christian people, they are typically happy because they have the Lord to make decisions for them—so their minds are unencumbered with burden. They love to eat and talk so any hotel that comes to that region needs to feature good southern food and places for them to talk to each other for long periods of time. They typically have money in their pockets because they work but they don’t want to “rough it.” I would go so far to say that a good Christian bookstore free-standing would do well in that location—something like a Lifeway, supporting businesses that allow for a vacation experience that extends beyond the Ark Encounter borders. Another aspect that is unique to this particular exit is the large group of Amish who have come to perform work at the Ark Encounter. There would be quite a market for Amish home cooking and crafts there which could rival Amish Acres up in Northern Indiana. There is room for all these wholesome markets in our wonderful American economy. I personally love Amish Acres and would enjoy a second option locally. I am certain that people would drive up from Georgia and Tennessee to get their hands on good Amish craftsmanship—and they are already in place at Williamstown to build exhibits at the Ark Encounter. People can say what they want about the viability of the Ark Encounter in relation to science, but the wood working performed there in the various structures is some of the best in the world—thanks to the Amish.
I have watched with quite a lot of frustration the Kings Mills exit where Kings Island is located. That real estate is marvelous, its one exit up from the great commercial hub of Fields Ertle Road but the Kings Mills exit itself has struggled to really find a niche for itself—and that is because the politicians of Mason and the Kings Mills area were too short-sighted to develop it correctly. They have the usual fast food restaurants there but they have struggled with hotels and retail which they shouldn’t because Kings Island has great demographic numbers. However, what they have is chaos—every kind of person that is out there, old people, young people, all different races and ideologies visiting the popular Amusement Park. That makes it hard for investors to key in on the type of people who will use whatever business they are proposing. Many retail outlets have failed at that exit for that very reason. But down at Grant County in the Bible Belt, the target demographic are Christian people who are typically affluent. They aren’t knuckle-dragging slobs who have a hard time holding down a job. Gatlinburg, Tennessee is likely their favorite place on earth because it is somewhere they can go where they don’t have to hide their values. If the same attitude were presented at Exit 154 on I-75 they would flock there for the sheer enjoyment of it.
But these places aren’t going to just drop in the lap of Williamstown. They need to be wooed by the management of Williamstown. There are a lot of companies out there looking for all the things that Exit 154 has to offer but they need to know it’s there. The Ark Encounter hasn’t been open long enough, nor is it developed enough to really spark development at that exit as of yet. God isn’t going to do the work for you. You guys are going to have to go out and get it, There is no reason however to allow Grant County to go bankrupt. That is just ridiculous. All that is needed is a good plan and people excited enough to implement it, and a little patience to allow things to develop. With just a little work I can see Exit 154 being one of the great tourist destinations between Cincinnati, Lexington, and Louisville. It’s a great location just far enough away from everything to feel remote, but close enough to inspire weekend vacations and church expeditions. A few months of activity won’t be enough, it will take several years—but they are off to a good start. Ken Ham’s people have certainly done what they set out to do; now it is up to Grant County to sell it to a Trump economy that is full of optimism for the first time in decades. Failure is really a decision, not a fate and Williamstown can only prosper if it does just a little work—which is completely in their power to do.
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