By Dennis O'Connor
Religion News Service
Ken Ham, the Australian-born creator of the Creation Museum, looks around the throng of about a thousand guests on a hot, August morning and notes that "for a Tuesday, this is not a bad crowd."
In fact, more than three years after it opened in this remote corner of Kentucky, the 70,000-square-foot "walk through the Bible," consisting of animatronic displays, video features, theaters and restaurants has evolved into a thriving enterprise.
"We have consistently surpassed our own forecasts for attendance," said Mark Looy, a co-founder of the museum and spokesman for the center. Last month (August), the Creation Museum counted more than 1.2 million guests since it opened in 2007, he added.
While Ham and Looy expected attendance to be high for the first year because of the curiosity factor -- there were about 500,000 guests in the museum's first year -- no one predicted the continuing growth in attendance.
Ham, who was instrumental in the startup of the museum's sponsoring organization, Answers in Genesis, said that despite the economic recession, families, individuals, church groups and even bus tours continue to pour into the Creation Museum, often spending a couple of days in the region to sample other attractions in the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky market.
"The recession has not in any way affected us," Ham said. "Many people who were going to come here were going to make this their destination anyway. Add to that people who decided instead of taking an expensive vacation in Florida, they wanted to either stay in this area or make the trip here. Either way, the museum has really helped the local economy more than people may realize."
Tom Caradonio, president of the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that one of the Creation Museum's greatest strengths is the interest and support it has garnered from evangelicals, a large demographic group.
"When Answers in Genesis did their demographic studies for the museum, they obviously knew that they had a group of people who would be highly motivated to visit," Caradonio said.
Pastor Brad Bigney of nearby Grace Fellowship Church in Florence, Ky., said another reason for the museum's steady flow of guests is Ham's frenetic schedule, which puts him on the road up to 250 times a year.
"He's a great spokesman for the museum, and he plants the seed for individuals and groups to make the trip to Northern Kentucky," Bigney said.
Four years ago, the museum was beset by feuds over zoning issues and opposition from many corners of the scientific community.
That sideshow has not gone away, Ham said. Anti-creationist bloggers continue to pan the facility, and some critics have taken shots at the museum's concept and staff. The pinnacle of ridicule came in the form of cable television star Bill Maher, who snuck into Ham's office one day to do a taping for his movie "Religulous."
But the biggest doubt over Answers in Genesis' project was questions about whether organizers could raise the $27 million it would need to launch the project, Caradonio said.
"If you go back to the issue of private funding -- there was no government money involved in this project -- you will see that about $5 million came from big donors, but by and large the other contributions came from individuals who were giving $25 or $50 from all over the country," Caradonio said. "With that many people invested in the project, you have built a huge audience that says, `Hey, I've put some money into this, and now I want to see the place.' That became a tremendous incentive for people to visit."
Looy said that more than half of the museum's visitors come from outside a 250-mile radius of the region, which has bolstered the bottom line for numerous hotels in and around the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, located just a few miles from the museum.
"That has been kind of a surprising development, with the hotel packages for museum visitors," Caradonio said. "It goes back to this whole issue of the kind of people the Creation Museum attracts: wholesome family-oriented people who the hotel folks love to have. And their arrival has helped make up for the loss in business because of the cutbacks (at Delta Airlines hub operations at the airport)."
Ham estimated that the museum has generated $65 million in overall financial impact on the community, helping support more than 2,000 jobs,in the region.
Ham and co-founder Looy said that the museum's success has allowed them to plan for expansion, including transforming warehouse space into additional room for a theater, and a new hall for visiting exhibits.
Ham noted that museum staffers already are planning for 20,000 guests to visit for the annual live Nativity exhibit, a substantial increase from last year's attendance, which was about 15,000.
"We are growing," Ham said. "And we don't see that stopping any time soon."