A state agency remade by Gov. Matt Bevin last week has approved $18 million in tax breaks to a Grant County amusement park that will feature a “life-size” Noah’s Ark.
The $92 million Ark Encounter project, owned by the same company as the Creation Museum in Petersburg, is scheduled to open July 7.
The tax break initially was approved by the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority in 2014 under Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration, but it was later canceled after tourism officials learned that the theme park would hire only Christians. Bob Stewart, then secretary of the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, said the U.S. Constitution prohibited the state from assisting a religious endeavor.
Ark Encounter officials sued the state in federal court, saying the state’s decision to withhold the tax break violated its free speech. In January, U.S. District Judge Greg Van Tatenhove ruled that the theme park was eligible to receive the tax incentive, which has neutral requirements that can be met by religious and secular groups alike. Gov. Matt Bevin said the state would not appeal the decision.
The tax break allows approved tourism sites to recover as much as 25 percent of their investment through a rebate of state sales taxes paid by visitors. The theme park also will receive tax breaks from Grant County and the city of Williamstown. The state also designated $11 million in road funds for an expanded interchange off Interstate 75.
“This issue was addressed by the courts,” tourism cabinet spokesman Garry Gupton said. “We’re following up to make sure their incentives line up with the program, and they met all of those requirements.”
Last week, Bevin reappointed one previous member of the authority board and added four new members.
Mike Zovath, a co-founder of Answers in Genesis, which runs Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum, said he was not surprised by the vote.
“We knew we met all the requirements,” he said. “We’re definitely pleased by the decision.”
Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, has said previously the project will hire only Christians but won’t discriminate among denominations.
“It is extremely unfortunate that the state is giving tax incentives to an organization that will discriminate against Kentucky citizens,” said Daniel Phelps, head of the Kentucky Paleontological Society and a longtime critic of the project.