FRANKFORT — A controversial Bible-themed amusement park received approval Thursday for up to $43 million in state tax incentives over a 10-year period.
The Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority, which oversees tax credits for tourism and film-related projects, unanimously approved the tax credit for the Ark Encounter project, which is scheduled to break ground in August outside Williamstown in Grant County.
In addition to the tax rebate, the state may spend an estimated $11 million to improve an interchange off I-75 near the 800-acre site in Northern Kentucky.
The park has been criticized by late-night talk show hosts and those who say the state should not give tax breaks to a business that espouses a particular religious view. But Gov. Steve Beshear has defended the incentives, saying the state cannot deny the application on religious grounds. The park alone could generate as many as 600 to 700 new jobs, according to a consultant's report. That number doesn't include jobs created from construction or from new hotels or restaurants.
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Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, based in Washington D.C., blasted the board's decision Thursday.
"The state of Kentucky should not be promoting the spread of fundamentalist Christianity or any other religious viewpoint," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Let these folks build their fundamentalist Disneyland without government help."
Lynn said his group will sue if they find the tax rebate violates the Constitution's guarantee of the separation of church and state.
Beshear has said the law does not allow the state to discriminate against a for-profit business because of the subject matter.
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. Since the Creation Museum opened, it has received more than 1 million visitors, its backers say.
To receive the state tax rebate, tourism projects must be open more than 100 days a year, cost more than $1 million and attract at least 25 percent of visitors from out-of-state by their fourth year of operation.
The Ark Encounter project exceeds all of those requirements, said consultant Rob Hunden of Hunden Strategic Partners, the consulting firm that presented their findings to the tourism authority before the vote. The theme park will cost more than $172 million to build, be open year-round and attract more than 86.4 percent of its visitors from out-of-state, Hunden told the board.
An executive summary of the consultant's report was made available to the media. However, the entire report was not released because it contained proprietary information.
The 800-acre park is expected to have a life-sized replica of Noah's Ark, a Tower of Babel, petting zoos and other live animals and an assortment of Bible-themed exhibits.
If the park does not espouse a particular philosophy, such as creationism, it will draw a larger audience, Hunden estimated. Under that scenario — which Ark Encounter backers said Thursday they will follow — the park is estimated to draw about 1.2 million visitors a year and have a net economic impact, minus the sales-tax rebates, of about $119 million over a decade.
The rebate allows the company to receive some of its sales tax back over 10 years. However, if the project does not generate sales taxes as expected, it will not receive the rebate, said Carolyn Ridley, chairwoman of the tourism authority.
Mike Zovath, senior vice president of the Ark Encounter project, would not disclose the major investors in the project but said that project backers are still raising money and hope to have all of the $150 million needed for initial construction by the end of June. The Hunden report cited the lack of funding as a major concern.
"If it is not fully funded, it will either not open or it will be less of a major attraction or success," the report said. "However, if that is the case, then the rebate it will be eligible for will be reduced."
Zovath said the group is confident that they will be able to raise the money.
Hunden's report said the cost of the reconfigured highway interchange will be about $11 million, but that's an estimate. The state should not construct the interchange until there are assurances that the funding for the park is in place, the report said.
Transportation Cabinet spokesman Chuck Wolfe said the cabinet will do its own initial study, which will include a cost estimate, in the next two months. There is an interchange near the proposed site, but that interchange would have to be reconfigured so it could handle more vehicles, he said.
"The governor's position is that as long as the developers follow through with their commitment, then it will be a priority," Wolfe said.
The project is not yet in the state's road plan, which the legislature and the Transportation Cabinet use to guide road projects. If the developers come forward with the money for building the park, then Beshear will ask that the interchange be placed in the road plan in January.
Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, has filed requests to the Tourism Arts and Heritage Cabinet about the Ark Encounter through the state's Open Records Act. Owens said Thursday that he has received some answers from the cabinet, but a May 2 letter in which he asked more questions about the origins of the project and how it was approved for incentives have not been answered.
"I am disappointed that this appears to have been fast-tracked and there just was not a lot of vetting," Owens said.