WILLIAMSTOWN — Residents of this small Grant County town are preparing to welcome a new amusement park in 2014 featuring a life-size Noah's Ark, which some believe will transform the area's economic landscape with hotels, restaurants and tourists.
Williamstown, which curves atop gentle ridges not far from I-75, has 2,500 people and an unemployment rate of about 12 percent. Empty storefronts on Main Street point to a local economy in need of a boost.
The town's residents have little information about the backers of the $150 million park or their plans, but one official there said 95 percent of the townspeople support the park.
It was a different story in Tennessee in the past decade, as two communities outside Nashville — Murfreesboro and Lebanon — turned down the promise of more jobs and taxes from Bible Park USA because of concerns about a lack of information and the ultimate cost to taxpayers. The Bible Park wanted help from state and local tax incentives to locate in Tennessee.
The Tennessee and Northern Kentucky projects are not related, said the developers of Ark Encounter, which is being put together by the creators of the Creation Museum in nearby Boone County. It's impossible to say there are no connections, however, because public officials have not seen or released any financial information about Ark Encounter's investors.
That lack of information was a concern for Dave Kirkey, one of the opponents of the Lebanon project, who helped bring to light information that one of the companies financing the deal was also behind a $400 million amusement park in Myrtle Beach, S.C., that later went bankrupt.
"We just kept asking questions, and they couldn't provide any information," Kirkey said. The final straw, he said, was when the developers said they would need $60 million in tax incentives, instead of the initial $35 million.
In Murfreesboro, "the developers did a good job in presenting the park, but the opposition did a really good job in presenting their case, too," said Rutherford County Commissioner Jeff Phillips.
Lawyers for opponents of the park, for example, discovered an obscure commission rule that required a two-thirds majority vote if a certain number of neighbors signed a petition against it. The zoning for the theme park passed 12-9, but that wasn't enough.
Here in Kentucky, it's still not clear who is investing in the Ark Encounter project, what a detailed business plan looks like or what the developer's projection of success is based on, other than a study commissioned by the developers.
Cary Summers, a Missouri consultant in charge of financing, said he has commitments for the project's $150 million, raised from a network of wealthy, faith-based investors. Their financing includes confidentiality agreements, Summers said.
A business plan will also remain under wraps, unless it is requested by the state, Summers said.
Gov. Steve Beshear and other state officials have repeated projected jobs numbers from a study by a former business partner of Ken Ham, the president of Answers in Genesis. In 2007, AIG opened the nearby Creation Museum, an attraction based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. But state officials have not seen the entire study, and AIG has refused to release it.
Still, Wade Gutman, director of the Grant County Chamber of Commerce and the Industrial Development Authority, isn't worried about the lack of information. If the project doesn't fly, then Grant County will simply stay the way it is right now.
"If there are a group of people willing to put up $150 million in private money, then they certainly have done the research to make sure this will work," he said in a recent interview. "The state has not invested one dime in the project and neither has the city. If the project doesn't work, nobody loses."
A state study
The tourism tax incentives the Ark project wants require an attraction to be up and making money before a portion of its sales taxes can be returned. State officials have estimated that could earn the project $37 million in tax incentives after it opens.
The final approval of those incentives awaits an economic impact study by the state, which will be done by Hunden Strategic Partners of Chicago, a firm that specializes in financial feasibility consulting on projects such as entertainment facilities and fairgrounds.
The Herald-Leader obtained a copy of the executive summary of AIG's economic impact study. The Ark Encounter's projected success is predicated on that of the Creation Museum, which sits roughly one hour away in Boone County, presumably meaning people will visit both sites.
According to the group, the Creation Museum had 450,000 visitors its first year, with slightly fewer visitors every year since, for a total of 1 million attendees since 2007. The Ark Encounter study, which was written by Britt Beemer, who has done previous studies for AIG, estimates 1.6 million people will visit the Ark park in the first year, or four times the number of people who visited the museum its first year.
The study, based on a survey of 1,000 people nationwide, found that one in two people said they would visit the Ark if it were within two days travel while two in five said they would visit it multiple times. The study estimated the average person would spend about $45 a day at the Ark and $107 for other expenses, including hotels and food. Daily tickets to the Creation Museum cost $24.95.
Based on those numbers, plus construction of the park and additional hotels and restaurants, the study estimates an economic impact of $243 million in the first year alone. By the end of 10 years, Beemer says, the total impact should be $4.3 billion.
'Nothing like it'
University of Kentucky economics professor Ken Troske, who does many economic impact studies, said he's concerned about "response bias" to the study because it simply asked whether respondents would come to visit a life-size Ark.
"If you ask somebody, would you buy this item, they're much more likely to say yes than they actually do when confronted with prices," said Troske, who read the economic impact summary.
Troske said he'd be more comfortable with methodology that pressed people on how much they'd be willing to spend to see the Ark.
All the other economic estimates in the study are based on the 1.6 million visitors.
It's hard to predict the Ark Encounter's success because there are no comparable projects of this size, says Reagan Hillier, director of the Faith Based Amusement Association in Argyle, Texas.
Officials with the International Association of Amusement Parks declined to comment on the park's future, saying there were too many unknown factors.
"On a national scale, there's nothing really like it," Hillier said. The closest comparison is the 15-acre Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Fla., which features a walled city and other tableaux from the time of Jesus Christ.
There is also a life-size ark in Hong Kong.
Despite several bankruptcies in the amusement park business, including the Six Flags chain, and the closing of Kentucky Kingdom in Louisville, Hillier thinks the Ark Encounter could fill a niche.
"I would say they're on to something," he said. "There is definitely a place in the market for a large-scale Christian amusement facility."
Supporters of the Ark Encounter like to point out that it will not require any taxpayer money up front, but that's not to say it might not require more public investment.
Williamstown Mayor Rick Skinner said there will probably be a tax increment financing program designed by the city to return city taxes to the group to help pay for construction. Details are not clear right now, Skinner said.
In addition, the state transportation department will probably have to widen the exits off I-75.
The next 50 years
The Ark Encounter raises larger questions about the state's economic development policy and whether the park projects the kind of image Kentucky wants as officials try to attract high-tech jobs that pay more than the 900 mostly service industry jobs the Ark developers are promising.
"There is a question of the kind of message you're sending," said UK's Troske.
The Ark Encounter has made Kentucky the butt of late-night comedians' jokes that have focused on a creationist philosophy that will place dinosaurs on board the Ark alongside animals and people.
"I think the goal should be to set up an environment where high-tech industries feel comfortable coming to Kentucky to find a workforce, a community and environment to thrive in, as opposed to focusing on specific jobs here and there," Troske said. "The things we're doing are not moving us forward."
But Beshear has repeatedly defended the building of the Ark Encounter, noting its developers project it will mean 900 part- and full-time jobs.
Down in Tennessee, County Commissioner Phillips had advice for the Williamstown community: What if a Bible Park failed? What would replace it?
"Do your due diligence as it relates to the long term," Phillips said. "How do you want your community to be viewed? Will it change the entire culture of your town? Make sure it's OK that that culture is changed, not just for five years, but for the next 50."
Reach Linda Blackford at (859) 231-1359.