The biblical theme park Ark Encounter — a project run by the young-Earth creationist group Answers In Genesis— will break ground next week, thanks in part to $18.25 million worth of tax incentives unanimously approved by the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority.
The approval is preliminary, pending a feasibility study and public hearing, but the theme park has strong political support. Terry Sebastian, a spokesman for Governor Steve Beshear, said Beshear was glad to hear about the outcome of the vote and wishes "the project success as it continues toward final approval to bring tourism and economic activity to Northern Kentucky." Ark Encounter could generate as many as 600 to 700 new jobs, according to an earlier consultant's report, a number which doesn't include jobs created from construction or from new hotels or restaurants. The state might spend an additional $11 million to improve a highway interchange near the 800-acre site.
The theme park, which will feature an ark 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and 55 feet high, is estimated to cost $172.5 million to build. Despite claims that it could receive one million visitors per year, it has encountered problems finding funders, which is why the state is stepping in to help. Ark Encounter could receive as much as $73 million in tax breaks.
The state government has brushed aside complaints that this violates the principle of separation of church and state. Beshear has claimed the law does not allow the state to discriminate against a for-profit business because of its subject matter.
Meanwhile, supporters are declaring it a victory for free speech. As the Lexington Herald-Reader reports:
Dave Muscato, a spokesman for American Atheists, said he was disappointed that the state panel gave preliminary approval to the Ark Encounter incentives.
"It's absolutely inappropriate and unconstitutional for the state to promote a religious view. This park will promote bad things, false things, and will give the impression that government is supporting this," Muscato said.
Asked whether his New Jersey-based group would sue to try to stop the use of the tax incentives, Muscato said, "We have not explored whether to legally challenge this, but that is not off the table."
Mike Zovath, Ark Encounter's co-founder and project coordinator, said it was "a real stretch" to say the state was promoting a religion with its incentives.
He said the state finance authority previously had granted tax incentives to Newport on the Levee, a retail and entertainment center in Newport.
"By doing that, the state is not sponsoring the acts and speeches of stand-up comedians who perform there. They're not sponsoring that any more than they are sponsoring what goes on at the Ark Encounter," Zovath said.
"This is purely an economic issue. This thing is going to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, $180 million in the first year of operation for the surrounding area."
He said the $180 million figure was determined by using mathematical formulas of the state's tourism industry.
Asked whether the park would try to evangelize its visitors to Christianity, Zovath said, "There will be an effort made to present the Gospel at the park. That has not been hidden at all from anything we have said.
"But we're not going to take your ticket and not let you leave the park until you convert."