State never saw feasibility study for Noah's Ark theme park

Project targeted for potential tax incentives

lblackford@herald-leader.comDecember 18, 2010 

When Gov. Steve Beshear held a Capitol news conference to announce potential state tax incentives for an amusement park built around a life-size Noah's Ark earlier this month, he cited a feasibility study that predicted the park would attract 1.6 million visitors in its first year.

However, neither Beshear nor other state officials had seen or read the study, which was commissioned by Ark Encounter, LLC, the group building the theme park.

"The press release was a joint effort, and the Ark Encounter provided the numbers for the release based on their own research, much like how we work with companies on jobs announcements — they give us the info about their job numbers and investment and we work together on a release," said Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson in an e-mail.

The state doesn't have a copy of the report, according to responses to requests under the Open Records Act sent by the Herald-Leader to the state tourism and economic development departments and to the governor's office.

Officials with Ark Encounter also declined to give the Herald-Leader a copy of the 10,000-page report, including its 200-page executive summary.

According to the company's summary of the study, the project is expected to create more than 900 full- and part-time jobs in Grant County, a number that Beshear has now mentioned in various venues around the state as he prepares for his re-election campaign next year.

The ark park is an offshoot of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, which is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, showing visitors how the world was created in six, 24-hour days 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. That enterprise is run by Answers in Genesis, which owns part of Ark Encounter LLC.

"We've got people making state economic development decisions without actually seeing the numbers," said Jim Waters of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a Libertarian-leaning think tank in Bowling Green. "I think that's outrageous."

The park is supposed to have a life-size wooden ark, with some live animals and models of others, including dinosaurs, which Ark Encounter officials believe existed alongside man. The park will also feature a Tower of Babel, a first-century village and a children's play area.

Richardson said the possible $37.5 million in tax breaks would only come after the park met certain financial goals.

"The state doesn't put in a penny to this project until it is completed, operating, and hitting the agreed-upon performance goals set through the Tourism Development Act," Richardson said. "If they complete the project and it doesn't perform as well as projected, then the state does not pay a nickel on the deal."

Richardson said the Tourism Development Act will require the state tourism department to do its own feasibility study.

As first reported by the liberal Barefoot and Progressive blog, the feasibility study was conducted by America's Research Group, a Charleston, S.C. consulting and marketing firm run by Britt Beemer, who also co-authored a book with Answers in Genesis President Ken Ham.

In an interview, Beemer said he correctly predicted the 400,000 visitors to the Creation Museum in its first year.

Beemer said his company did "behavioral-based research," which involved calling 1,000 people around the country and asking them 147 questions about Ark Encounter. He said other clients of his include Berkshire Hathaway and Seely Mattress.

"When someone asks me to do one of these studies, I'm thorough," he said.

Beemer did a similar study on teenagers' attitudes toward churchgoing for Ham, which Ham ended up using in a book called Already Gone: Why your kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it.

"He was kind enough to put me as a co-author," Beemer said.

Beemer said his predictions on visitors to the ark park sound very plausible.

"You have to realize the Ark cuts across almost all faiths, whether you're Christian or Jewish," Beemer said. "I think 78 percent of people questioned said they would like to see it; usually when you create a concept like this, you want 48 percent."

The Ark, which has made Kentucky the target of late night comedians, may face other hurdles, such as a possible lawsuit from opponents who question whether the deal would violate laws about the separation of church and state.

Regardless of this project, Waters said the situation points out larger problems with the state's economic development policy, including its secrecy.

"We've questioned for a long time the lack of transparency on handing out tax incentives," he said. "It's also very disingenuous — it misleads Kentuckians to think this has been well thought out, which is clearly not happening. It's simply a chance for the governor to have a photo-op about several hundred low-paying jobs."

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