Noah's Ark theme park to get deep discount on property taxes

Plus Price break on 100 acres

lblackford@herald-leader.comAugust 9, 2011 

1012creationPA

Ark Encounter, a for-profit biblical theme park, is planned to be built on an 800-acre site in Grant County. Artwork of the planned park shows the Tower of Babel at left, a first-century walled city in center, Noah's Ark at right, and an amphitheater at bottom center.

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The city of Williamstown in Grant County has agreed to give a biblically themed amusement park a property tax discount of 75 percent over the next 30 years.

Mayor Rick Skinner said the offer is laid out in a memorandum of agreement that will be followed by a formal tax-increment financing deal with Petersburg-based Ark Encounters LLC in coming months.

The tax deal is in addition to almost $200,000 given to the company by Grant County's economic development arm as an enticement to keep the project located there, along with 100 acres of reduced-price land.

And that's not counting the state's promise of $40 million worth of sales tax rebates and a possible $11 million in improvements to the interstate near the project that would be financed by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

Officials say the theme park, which will feature a full-size replica of Noah's Ark, is generally supported in Grant County, but the array of state and local incentives worry some people, who aren't sure they will pay off in the end.

City Council member and former mayor Glenn Caldwell said he's still evaluating the numbers.

"I'm trying to be cautious in representing our city," he said, "making sure people will not be burdened with additional costs because of this project."

The property tax agreement means the Ark Encounter would pay 25 percent of the taxes due on 800 acres of property that is eventually expected to be worth $150 million. Most local property taxes are used to finance Williamstown Independent Schools.

The reduced property taxes will generate far more revenue than the current raw land, Skinner said. He will speak about the project at an informational meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Williamstown High School.

Officials ranging from Skinner to Gov. Steve Beshear have embraced the project, adopting the developer's projection that 900 full-time and part-time jobs will be created.

According to a consultant hired by the state tourism department, the project is expected to draw nearly 1.4 million visitors a year from all over the United States to see Noah's Ark, a Tower of Babel and a village built to look like cities described in the Bible.

The developers, called Answers in Genesis, based their financial projections in part on the success of a previous venture, the Creation Museum in Boone County. Since the museum opened in 2007, owners said, more than 1 million people have visited.

The Grant County Industrial Development Authority has been a key player in the ark park project.

Director Wade Gutman was not available for comment Monday, but he told the Grant County News late last month that part of the $195,000 the authority paid to Answers in Genesis was to make up for the fact that word leaked out about the project, causing land prices to double. The authority also paid some of the sales tax on the property.

The total amount of the sale has not been made public.

The authority and the Grant County Fiscal Court helped with land acquisition, providing 100 acres of the 800-acre site.

Mike Zovath, senior vice president of Ark Encounters LLC, said the land wasn't free, but he declined to state its worth.

Zovath said the project has already raised between 75 percent and 80 percent of the project's expected $150 million cost from private investors. So far, the group has spent about $2 million on the project, which is supposed to break ground in the next few months.

Speaking about the proposed property tax deal, Zovath said the memorandum of agreement with the city is not binding.

"Sure there are a lot of concerns," he said. "If this thing doesn't happen, the city, county and state aren't out anything. If it does, there's hundreds of millions of dollars in positive economic development."

Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, has long been troubled by the project.

"They (Answers in Genesis) have said they didn't need the incentives, so why are we giving them?" Owens asked. "I'm just bothered by the whole process."

In Grant County, though, residents are looking forward to the possibility of jobs, said city council member Dick Austin. In addition, the community is talking about the hotels and restaurants that might be needed.

"I think most people are supportive," Austin said. "People are convinced they can do what they'll say they can do."

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