By Roger Alford, Associated Press
FRANKFORT, Ky. — Modern-day investors want to do in three years what took Noah and his sons more than 100 years to do: Build an ark to the dimensions specified in the Bible.
Mike Zovath, co-founder of the Answers in Genesis ministry that opened the Creation Museum in Kentucky three years ago, said Wednesday he believes the full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark will draw some 1.6 million visitors a year to the Bible belt city of Williamstown.
The mission of the project, Zovath said, is to lend credence to the biblical account of a catastrophic flood and to dispel doubts that Noah could have fit two of every kind of animal onto a 500-foot-long ark.
Investors, who have looked at sites across the country for the proposed theme park, are looking closely at an 800-acre site in Grant County just off Interstate 75, a heavily traveled north-south corridor. Selecting the location is contingent on a number of factors, including approval of state tax incentives, the value of which haven’t yet been determined.
Gov. Steve Beshear said he favors providing the tax incentives to encourage investors to move ahead with the Ark Encounter project that investors claim would create about 900 permanent jobs and have a $214 million economic impact in its first year of operation. The governor, who is seeking re-election next year, showed little patience with people who object to the project on religious grounds.
“The people of Kentucky didn’t elect me governor to debate religion,” Beshear said. “They elected me governor to create jobs. That’s what we’re doing here, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”Investors submitted an application Wednesday for sales tax reimbursements under a tourism development initiative approved by the state legislature earlier this year.
“I think it’s fair to say we are all very positive, initially, about this application, and we don’t really see any problems in getting it approved,” Beshear said.
However, the notion of providing such incentives for a project with a religious theme drew immediate opposition on grounds of church-state separation and raised the specter of protracted legal battles over the issue.
“It’s perfectly fine for a private group to relaunch Noah’s ark, but the governor shouldn’t go along for the ride,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “The government should not be giving tax incentives for religious projects. Religion should be supported by voluntary donations, not the government.”
Beshear said the state can’t legally withhold such incentives just because the project has a biblical theme. “There’s nothing even remotely unconstitutional about a for-profit organization coming in and investing $150 million to create jobs in Kentucky and bring tourism to Kentucky,” Beshear said.
American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky staff attorney Bill Sharp said he doesn’t see constitutional problems with the state granting tax exemptions for the project.
“Courts have found that giving such tax exemptions on a nondiscriminatory basis does not violate the establishment clause, even when the tax exemption goes to a religious purpose,” Sharp said.
Cary Summers, head of Missouri-based consulting firm The Nehemiah Group, painted a rosy economic picture for the rural community once the project is completed in 2014. He envisions new restaurants, hotels and related businesses opening to accommodate the visitors, and thousands of additional spinoff jobs.
Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, said the Creation Museum in Petersburg has proven that tourists will flock to such attractions. More than 1 million visitors have toured the Creation Museum since it opened three years ago. Employees at the Creation Museum are required to sign a statement affirming that they’re Christians, a requirement that could be extended to the Ark Encounter, though that decision hasn’t yet been made.
The newest project would include an ancient walled city, a petting zoo, live animal shows featuring giraffes and elephants and a replica of the biblical Tower of Babel.
Grant County Judge-Executive Darrell Link said the project could provide an economic engine for a community that for generations leaned on the waning tobacco industry for jobs.”Along with this ark, I anticipate that there is going to be a rainbow,” Link said. “And at the end of that rainbow is a pot of gold.”