Saturday, November 30, 2013

And on the seventh day...He created a market.

With this article I venture into what may prove one of my most overtly political topics ever, possibly against better judgment.  Yet I wade into these waters as a deliberate challenge to myself, since I strive to separate the intensive political controversy that this tourist attraction elicits from what I think is more interesting and ultimately more cogent: the sustainability of its business model.  Despite being relatively new, this attraction has already lured millions of visitors.  Although tens of millions more have not visited (and have no intention of doing so), the heated debate generated from its opening in the summer of 2007 has inevitably foisted it further in the limelight than its conceivers had ever expected.

I’m referring to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, in the outer reaches of suburban Cincinnati, just ten miles west of the Greater Cincinnati Airport (CVG) and also a two-minute drive from the I-275 bridge over the Ohio River that leads to Indiana.  The museum is (at this point in time) the highest-profile project of Answers in Genesis (AiG), a non-profit Christian apologetics ministry that principally advocates for a literal interpretation of Genesis.  Both the museum and its parent organization, now housed at the same address at the museum’s campus, owe a great deal of their size and influence to the tireless efforts of Ken Ham, who first founded a creationist organization in his native Australia in the late 1970s.  After several acquisitions and reorganizations that eventually whisked Ham across the Pacific to an American agency, Answers in Genesis was born, bringing together a smattering of creationist enterprises from the US, Australia, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand under one umbrella, all under Ham’s directorship.  In the intervening years, Ham has achieved national recognition for his tireless fundraising, which culminated in the $27 million of private funds to build the 70,000 square-foot Creation Museum—a goal of AiG since its inception.

Even among other Biblical creationists, the Creation Museum has aroused controversy.  It largely serves as the visitor-friendly, public relations arm of Answers in Genesis, which in turn concords with Ken Ham’s theological views.  Ham is a Young Earth Creationist (YEC), meaning that he believes that God created the earth according to the account in Genesis, approximately 6,000 years ago.  Not only does this defy fundamentals to Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, it also boldly contradicts most geological or cosmogonal studies of the age of the earth and the origin of the universe.  Thus, when compared with competing perspectives such as Old Earth or progressive creationism, whose proponents have also publicly debated Ham and AiG, the Creation Museum is probably the most at odds with contemporary scientific inquiry.

AiG’s creative team could have tried to accommodate other creationist views to expand its audience base, but they wisely decided it wouldn’t be necessary: Young Earth Creationism aligns with the views of a sizable portion of American Evangelical and conservative Christians.  According to a 2012 Gallup Poll, 46% of Americans surveyed believe that God created humans within the last 10,000 years—a percentage essentially unchanged since the polls began 30 years prior.  Thus, the Creation Museum did not need to cast a wide net in order to find its demographic base.  Initial speculation was that the Museum would see 250,000 visitors in its first year, but it ended up achieving that number within five months.  Almost immediately, AiG began planning to double the size of the parking lot, along with a retention pond to capture stormwater runoff, preventing it from flooding or polluting a nearby creek.  By the end of that first year, the Creation Museum welcomed over 400,000 visitors.

The photos featured throughout this article are no longer all that current; they’re from the summer of 2009, when the museum was about two years old.  The Creation Museum seems to be operating on a trajectory that involves steadily expanding its programming and amenities, though it already seemed extensive during my visit.  A few paragraphs back, I consciously used the word “campus” to describe the site, and while the word may be an overstatement, the museum is more than an isolated building.  The park-like grounds are extensive.
Aside from the outdoor seating, the museum’s property features an huge garden, a rope bridge, and a petting zoo.
Though I’m hardly well-versed in landscape architecture, it was obvious that AiG had invested considerably in both the design and the regular maintenance of these grounds.  The results were, at the very least, pleasing to my own two peepers, but I have no idea if Ken Ham and his team intended for these grounds to feature plant species indigenous to northern Kentucky, or an approximate recreation of prelapsarian Eden, or something else.  There was no way I could know.  The entire garden lacked any signage referring to plant species, Biblical relevance, or anything that would explain context or rationale.  It ostensibly existed simply as a treat for the senses, adding to the attraction for a museum that, thanks to the combination of the exhibits and the outdoor amenities, could easily consume an entire day for visitors.  Since the museum sits in the middle of former farmland, with no other commercial presence nearby, it needed something for its patrons to eat during their visit.  And, characteristic of the largest children’s museums, it offers an entire food court.

Since my 2009 visit, Answers in Genesis has added 20 zip lines and a network of 10 sky bridges to the museum, making it the biggest course in the Midwest.
Inside the museum, the curators have added a new section on dragons, based on the supposition that the Bible’s reference to “behemoths” might not just be describing the museum’s much-celebrated dinosaurs but also other mythical creatures that could have existed before the flood.  But these newest features only further beg the question: what do dragons and dinosaurs (not to mention zip lines) have to do with the story of creation, or anything explicitly referenced in the Bible, for that matter?  These inclusion are entirely within AiG’s right, but its hard to see them as corresponding with the organization’s ultimate ministry.  If visitors pay for the museum’s outdoor element and spend all day on zip lines, how are they having anything but a secular experience?  Instead, the attractions outside of the museum’s walls are ostensibly new goodies to enhance the museum’s ambition as a day-long (or even multi-day) destination in an of itself, rather than a museum that amuses the kiddos for 2 or 3 hours.  Ken Ham smartly located the Creation Museum sufficiently close to several important metros: besides Cincinnati, we have Lexington, Louisville, Dayton, Columbus, and Indianapolis within a two-hour drive.  But when I visited, the license plates often came from much greater distances than the tri-state region.

It would seem that the Creation Museum has succeeded overwhelmingly in its aspirations; after all, by April 2010 it was celebrating its millionth visitor.  But a closer scrutiny at those numbers suggests that all is not well.  After all, if it attracted over 400,000 after one year in operation, which equates to May of 2008, shouldn’t it have reached the one million point at some point in late 2009 if those numbers continued to surge?  The fact is, after a booming year one, the attendance has dropped in each subsequent year. The year ending June 2012 reported attendance at 254,000—barely over the original expectations.  The museum blames the persistently weak economy, which surely does have something to do with it—except that the museum opened just months before the Great Recession, and its most successful first year transpired while we were watching Lehman Brothers and Countrywide Financial collapse.  And AiG’s response to sagging sales was to raise the ticket price in July of 2012: from an already steep $24.95 per person up to $29.95.  It seems like some of those new attractions may reflect AiG’s realization that the Creation Museum is in serious trouble if it keeps moving along this path.  It’s declining faster than a Mainline church.

The response?  Answers in Genesis boldly announced its latest project: a $73-million replica of Noah’s greatest achievement, in the Ark Encounter, under construction about 40 miles away from the Creation Museum in Grant County, Kentucky.  In addition to the ark, it will apparently feature a replica of the Tower of Babel, the life of Abraham, the plagues of Egypt, and the birth of the nation of Israel—all as part of a seven to eleven-minute ride.  But it’s facing a few snags: the project is years behind schedule and has only raised about one-fifth of its budget, and the delays are pushing the estimated total budget up to $150 million—almost six times the cost of the Creation Museum.  The situation is so dire that the neighboring City of Williamstown has issued $62 million in bonds in an attempt to salvage the initiative.  Fortunately the city won’t have to repay these bonds back, since anticipated revenues for Ark Encounter will do the trick.  But these bonds aren’t rated, making them little more than junk.  Among the risks to investors: sicknesses transmitted among the ark’s many animal pairs; lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of a religious project receiving tax breaks; those persistently declining attendance figures at the Creation Museum.

None of the aforementioned news featurettes fully underline why the Creation Museum and perhaps Answers in Genesis are possibly in such serious trouble.  The ministry’s current struggles ultimately foreshadow a cultural misalignment.  When news of the Ark Encounter made its way to some of the Evangelical Christian newsmedia outlets, it understandably elicited reaction, both favorable as well as a fair share of atheist catcalls.  One quote caught my attention: an anonymous commenter who I have no way of finding or reaching; otherwise I would give credit.  I simply copied and pasted the comment.  Here it is:
“What I find so amusing about this whole project is that... Christians don't seem to realize that by giving their Bible stories a Disney like experience... they are essentially highlighting the very mythological basis of their faith. In my opinion for most Christians the [Old Testament] is an out of sight out of mind type thing (because Christians don't actually read the bible) so by bringing focus to these stories in a modern scientific context... only the extremely delusional are going to find the encounter "spiritual" everyone else will gauge the experience by the entertainment value for the dollar...the same as visiting any other cartoon based amusement park.”

Obviously this quote isn’t lacking in condescension toward Christians in general and creationism in particular.  I don’t condone it one bit, nor does it reflect my own sentiments.  I would experience no Schadenfreude if Answers in Genesis were to go bankrupt; it’s obvious the Creation Museum had quite an impact on the tourist economy of northern Kentucky, and it has generated hundreds of jobs for the region.  It would be callous to wish all of this to fail, no matter how dubious the museum’s attempt to reconcile contemporary scientific inquiry with the first book of the Old Testament.  For all the criticism lobbed at the Creation Museum for branding itself as science/history, it suffers no shortcomings as a religious museum, and my philosophy is overwhelmingly laissez-faire when it comes to addressing what matters of faith parents wish to impart on their children—in contrast with what our tax-supported public schools teach.

That said, the comment above nails it in the in the final sentence or two.  Answers in Genesis may have sealed its own demise by embarking on this basic undertaking.  The more goodies it crams into the overall experience and the more it blurs sacred and profane, the more obvious it become that the business model echoes that of Disneyland, regardless of the original intentions.  And if it becomes just another amusement park, even in the eyes of its most ardent Evangelical Christian supporters, it’s not going to be able to sustain itself, because the museum really will end up competing with places like Disneyland (or King’s Island in the Cincinnati area).  Meanwhile, since it does give “their Bible stories a Disney-like experience”, it will make new believers out of exactly nobody.

The other major aspect of the Creation Museum that I think hints at its questionable long-term viability is a simple display sign that, at the time of my visit, was poised strategically near the exit.
Okay, so the kids love those dinosaurs, and you can never go wrong with letting people pet the animals on display.  But is that enough for people to come back—let alone multiple times in a single year?  It would be interesting to know how many annual passes the museum sold even in its wildly successful first year, and, for that matter, how many families actually used those passes.  Color me cynical, but my suspicion is that low sales on the annual pass should have offered the early warning sign.

Over its six years in operation, the Creation Museum has expanded its programming.  But it has never reported any change to its exhibits—a huge contrast with most children’s museums (which are typically heavily science-themed) or most amusement parks.  These attractions recognize that exhibits must come and go all the time in order to keep the overall experience fresh.  Sometimes children’s museums will simply update their exhibits to reflect breakthroughs in scientific discovery.  But the Creation Museum is based on the unchanging Word of God.  It cannot evolve; pardon the pun.  Thus, what incentive do parents have to go back and see it all over again, especially when the museum is trying so hard to serve as a destination for families coming from hundreds of miles away?

When Answers in Genesis opens its Ark Encounter (if it opens), the whole enterprise very likely will benefit from a surge in attendance.  But how long before the Ark Encounter replaces the Creation Museum as the premier Biblical attraction of Northern Kentucky?  Can AiG sustain both, especially with those prices?  And what adult or child is seriously going to want to return within the year, just to experience the exact same spectacle all over again?  All of this ministry’s herculean efforts—and colossal spending—may just become the next incarnation of Heritage USA, the largely forgotten South Carolina Christian theme park that exploded in popularity in the early 1980s, then crashed almost as quickly after America learned of the peccadilloes of its founder, Jim Bakker.  I would never want to analogize Ken Ham to a convicted felon.  But barring a tremendous shift in American culture that has little to do with growing percentage claiming “religion: none”, the quixotic Australian’s empire may prove even more short-lived.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Time to shake hands…now that you’re on your way out the door.

While traveling one of the main thoroughfares in metro Detroit, I came along this modest little billboard.
I call it modest because the one behind it and above it—of Detroit’s omnipresent powerhouse litigator Joumana Kayrouz—is a little bit bigger.
In fact, from a moderate distance, Ms. Kayrouz not only dwarfs the Target Corporation, but the tree’s branches almost completely obscure the minor billboard.
Still, for the purposes of this meditation, this Target ad is more compelling, if a lot less assertive.  Sure, it’s nothing much to look at, but, as is often the case, the context is what really matters.  The billboard says “Hello Detroit” while featuring a bunch of fruits and vegetables.  Okay—no big deal.  To some extent, it makes perfect sense; the sign stands at Eight Mile Road and Woodward Avenue, the widely-known, almost mythologized boundary between the big city and its affluent northern suburbs.

What’s so special about this billboard?  Well, it sits at the north side of Eight Mile Road, in the suburb of Ferndale.  Not the city of Detroit at all.  Here’s what you’d see if you pivot 180 degrees.
On the opposite (south) side of Eight Mile Road sits the one and only Detroit location of a Meijer, Michigan’s highly successful alternative to Walmart.  This Meijer, which only opened earlier this previous summer, represented a coup for the Motor City, since it anchors a large shopping plaza that appears so far to be successful, thereby figuratively (and possibly literally) representing a much-needed infusion of taxable commercial real estate for a city that is revenue-starved, to put it delicately.

It still baffles the senses to see a “Hello Detroit” sign precisely targeting motorists as they leave the Motor City.  More likely than not, it is implicitly greeting Detroiters arriving in this suburb, welcoming them to the bounty of shopping available in wealthy Oakland County (including many Target stores).  But a huge proportion—perhaps a majority—of the people seeing this billboard are returning to their suburban homes after a commute from the big city’s downtown.  Otherwise, it is essentially bidding salutations to true-blue Detroiters—that same population that the suburbanites have been steadfastly fleeing for sixty years.

So is it fair of me to draw blanket conclusions about the prevailing sentiment fueling America’s 14th largest metro from a single billboard?  Of course it isn’t.  Still, it easily hints at something the Target Corporation seems to speculate about its regional consumer base: that Detroiters’ identification with their beleaguered city has grown increasingly untethered from the clearly defined political boundaries.  Hundreds of thousands of commuters pass this billboard daily, returning home from work, and most probably think nothing of it.  They are figurative Detroiters, even if they’ve never hung their hats in the city limits.  Even if they live in Auburn Hills or Brighton (25 and 30 miles from the outer Detroit border, respectively), Detroit is most likely where they’d claim they’re from if they encounter someone from Boise or Bradenton.

This ostensibly split personality doesn’t distinguish Detroit.  Virtually every large metropolitan area operates under similar conditions. As an economic engine, the core city of Michigan’s largest metro may sputter as it runs on seriously diluted oil, but the psychological centrality of Detroit (or Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Salt Lake City) remains the primary point of reference for the majority of Americans who have never heard of Auburn Hills or Brighton.  And Detroit might not even be an oddity for the share of its metro that lives outside of the city limits: the change in US Census parameters for metro areas between 2000 and 2010 makes it difficult to cross-reference, but rough 2010 estimates indicate that about 16.5% of those living in the MSA call the city home, a rate higher than similar former industrial strongholds such as Pittsburgh and St. Louis, where 12.9% and 11.4% of the metro residents live within the core city limits.

But the world hears much, much more about Detroit’s woes these days.  And even if dozens of Rust Belt cities continue to endure declining populations and tax bases, the only ones that can claim something on par with Detroit’s staggering 25% drop from 950,000 to 710,000 between 2000 and 2010 are places like Gary, IN (21.9%), East St. Louis, IL (14.4%), Cleveland (17.1%) and Youngstown, OH (18.3%) and Detroit’s neighbor Flint (18.0%).  Nonetheless, a first-grader could still point out that all of these numbers are lower than 25.  And, to Detroit’s detriment, the percentage of 25 has its own semantic equivalent that, denotatively, sinks like a stone: “Detroit lost one quarter of its population in the last decade!” 

Truth be told, the marketing team at Target probably thought nothing of leasing this advertising space, nor did CBS, who owns the billboard.  For me to infer both an underlying motive or some broader sociopolitical implications is more an indication of my own hyperanalytical zeal than any true issues at hand.  But it’s hard to fathom that no one considered the irony of a Detroit greeting standing just a stone’s throw from the actual municipal boundary—especially considering that this city of 700,000 people does not contain a single Target, nor is there evidence that it can expect one any time soon.  I can only guess if Target’s generally very savvy marketing campaign would plop a similar billboard ad right outside the boundary of any other American city.  Or whether Meijer would dream of doing the same in Detroit.  At least Meijer voluntarily opened a new store branch—in the Motor City limits, no less.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Sharpening the Cut.

My latest appeared at Huffington Post a few days ago, but thanks to persistent wifi problems, only today have I been able to link it.  Sorry about that.

It focuses on the Dequindre Cut, a high-profile rail-trail conversion in Detroit, whose Phase I (extending about 1.2 miles, from Gratiot Avenue to the Riverfront) has been quite popular for cyclists and pedestrians.  A conversion of the Grand Trunk Western Railroad  that, until the early 1980s, could take commuters from the suburb of Royal Oak southward within a few blocks of the Renaissance Center, the line sat vacant and derelict for many years.  Now, this southern spur offers a generous linear park that is almost completely grade separated.

For the vast majority of the cut's northward trajectory, it looks like this--lots of room for different modes, regularly spaced lighting (and emergency phones), along with an expansive grassy buffer to the trail's west.  But at the southern terminus near Atwater Street (yes, when you are at the water), the right-of-way for the Cut broadens even more.  At this point, the Cut meets with street grade, and the whole thing transforms to something different.

Essentially, the designers of the Dequindre Cut decided to sculpt this section into a plaza with benches and landscaping, but, as the second photo indicates, the bike lanes in particular get goofy, meandering in an S-shape, then splitting.  What's going on?  Anyone not expecting this change--which is pretty much anyone coming along the Cut from the north for the very first time and headed southward--is going to be confused by this.  And it shows.  Pedestrians have to stop short; bicyclists have to veer out of the way.  It's an accident waiting to happen.

Approaching the trailhead from the river and looking northward, the image also poses a problem.

Quite simply, it doesn't look much like a trail; it just looks like a plaza.   The first time I went running along the Detroit Riverwalk, I ran right past the Dequindre Cut and had to ask someone where it was.  And I know I'm not the only one.  My hope is that, as Phase II begins (extending the conversation northward to Warren Avenue) the designers focus on clean simplicity and don't try to gussy things up with fulsome programming.  In my estimation, they over-programmed Campus Martius Park as well (which I blogged about several weeks ago).  But I'm confident they'll redeem themselves through the remaining segments of what someday will--inshallah--be a fantastic way to connect the burbs to the River.

As always, comments are welcomed, either here or on HuffPost, where I've included the full article along with lots more pics.