The operators of a Noah’s Ark theme park in Grant County say they will pay Williamstown’s safety tax even though they disagree with it and, in fact, they have been collecting 50 cents on every ticket sold since July 1.
In April, Williamstown City Council members imposed the tax on the city’s three entertainment venues, of which Ark Encounter is by far the largest.
Ark Encounter officials balked, saying they had not been warned about their assessment, which would raise about $700,000 a year to pay for more emergency services to serve the venue. In further discussions, they offered to cap the fee at $350,000, then $500,000. They also asked for an exemption from the tax on religious grounds, which the city refused.
At that point, the Ark operators sold their main parcel of land to their non-profit affiliate for $10. It’s currently valued at $48 million, sparking fears in Williamstown that as a non-profit, Ark operators would try to exempt themselves from all property taxes.
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That’s when the state Tourism Cabinet stepped in, saying that a separate sales tax rebate of up to $18 million would be suspended because the transfer had breached the agreement with the state.
On Friday, the land was transferred back to Ark Encounter LLC, a for-profit organization. And on Tuesday, Ark co-founder Mark Looy issued the lengthiest explanation to date.
“The Ark has never stated it would not pay into the fund,” Looy said. “Ark representatives made it clear that it had concerns about the fairness of the city ordinance, for it makes the Ark Encounter bear almost the entire load for the increased funding to cover Williamstown’s budget for police, fire, and EMS.
“The filing for an exemption as a religious non-profit (as permitted in the ordinance), was done in an attempt to get the county to change the wording as it currently stands, which would exempt the Ark Encounter,” Looy said. “It was not to avoid paying its fair share, as some articles have suggested.”
Looy also said that Ark Encounter LLC operates as a non-profit because it is wholly owned by a non-profit, the entity known as Crosswater Canyon. That is further owned by Answers in Genesis, Looy said, which oversees both the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum in Petersburg. Further requests for explanation of these definitions were not given. Ark Encounter LLC has been listed as a for-profit entity with the Secretary of State since 2011.
Tourism officials had no comment on whether the sales tax rebate would now move forward.
Both Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum espouse a view of young earth creationism, which rejects evolution. Both the large-scale Ark and the museum have exhibits that show humans interacting with small, and presumably friendly, dinosaurs.
Williamstown Mayor Rick Skinner said the safety tax will not be turned in until Aug. 20.
“I’m glad this has been settled and I look forward to working with the Ark in years to come,” Skinner said.
Looy also disputed reports about the Ark’s effects on the surrounding area.
“In Dry Ridge, many hotels, restaurants, and other tourist-related businesses are flourishing. In a spirit of cooperation, we encourage the city of Williamstown to work with more hotel developers and restaurant brands to build in the area,” he said. “For its part, when Ark staff attend various civic functions, they frequently encourage entrepreneurs to build in Williamstown.”