FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear defended state tax incentives that could surpass $37 million for a religious theme park in Northern Kentucky, saying Wednesday he's happy to lend state support to a business that will bring hundreds of jobs.
State involvement in the $150 million project brought outrage from groups focused on the separation of church and state, but Beshear said there was nothing "remotely unconstitutional" about the proposal.
"The people of Kentucky didn't elect me governor to debate religion," Beshear said. "They elected me governor to create jobs."
Beshear announced plans for the park, called Ark Encounter, in a Capitol news conference. The centerpiece of the proposed park is a 500-foot-by-75-foot wooden ark built to replicate the biblical Noah's Ark.
The Answers in Genesis group, which started the Creation Museum that opened in Petersburg in May 2007, will handle daily operations of the theme park, expected to be completed by 2014. A Grant County official said it would be built on 800 acres off Interstate 75 south of Williamstown.
Ark Encounter will include the ark, live animals, event venues and a children's play area, among other things. The ark will be made of various types of wood and capable of floating.
The project is expected to create more than 900 full- and part-time jobs after its completion and attract 1.6 million visitors in the first year, with the number increasing after five years.
Beshear said the park could have a $214 million economic impact in the first year and bring $250 million into the state by the fifth year.
Answers in Genesis' Creation Museum 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. It has dinosaurs next to depictions of Adam and Eve.
During a news conference, reporters asked Beshear several questions about the constitutionality of the proposed tax incentives.
Beshear said the law does not allow the state to discriminate against a for-profit business because of the subject matter. Not everyone supports NASCAR, the governor said, but that did not stop him from providing incentives to help Kentucky Speedway hold a Sprint Cup race next year.
"We are all very positive, initially, about this application, and we don't really see any problems in getting it approved," Beshear said.
Some, including the Washington-based group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, were outraged.
"When Noah launched the Ark the first time, he was not looking for government funding," said Barry Lynn, executive director of the non-profit.
He said there could be lawsuits opposing any tax incentives the group might receive.
Lynn said it would be fine for a business to build a religious park with private funds.
"The Constitution doesn't prevent you from putting up a water park," Lynn said. "It does prevent you from putting up Noah's water park."
Daniel Phelps, a geologist and president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, called the governor's support of the proposal "embarrassing for the state."
"Considering the educational goals we have in the state, it's really disturbing," Phelps said.
Gil Lawson, a spokesman for the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, said Ark Encounter would be eligible to recoup 25 percent of its development costs by keeping the sales tax generated from the park.
If it costs $150 million to develop, the park would be eligible for $37.5 million in tax incentives under the Kentucky Tourism Development Act. The Ark Encounter could receive 10 percent of the money each year for 10 years.
Lawson said the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority must give preliminary approval, and then a consultant will do a financial analysis. The project then will return to the authority for a vote.
Lawson said the business can be approved for incentives "as long as it's legal and it meets the requirements of the act." He said the subject of the business is not an issue.
Cary Summers, the project's lead consultant, said the park will answer questions for people curious about how the ark was built. He said 43 percent of people in a 2009 CBS survey declared Noah's Ark the archaeological discovery they would like to see next.
Summers has led other large-scale attractions, including Herschend Family Entertainment in Branson, Mo., from 1992 to 1998. He said the area for Ark Encounter was selected because about two-thirds of the U.S. population would be within one day's drive of the theme park.
"The park itself is to provide families with entertainment," said Mike Zovath, senior vice president of special projects for Answers in Genesis.
Since the Creation Museum opened in 2007, nearly 1 million people have visited, Zovath said. More than 80 percent of the visitors were from outside Kentucky.
Although the park's site was not announced, Grant County Judge-Executive Darrell Link talked like it was a done deal. He said the park would be built on farmland next to the veterans cemetery south of Williamstown.
He said he was excited about what the project would mean for the county of about 25,000 people.
"The money that they are bringing to our county is phenomenal," Link said.
He said the project accentuated the religious views of people in Grant County, but "at the end of the day, it's for-profit."
Link said he expects the county's infrastructure will be improved as a result of the theme park, including upgrades to nearby roads, and that more businesses will be attracted to the area.
"It's a game-changer," he said.