FRANKFORT — A group that wants to build a Noah's Ark theme park in Grant County won preliminary approval Tuesday of state tax incentives of as much as $18.25 million to keep the controversial project afloat.
The Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority voted unanimously to give preliminary approval of the incentives for the $73 million first phase of the biblical theme park.
An independent consultant for the state will take six to eight weeks to review the project. It then will come back to the state panel for final consideration of tax incentives.
Three years ago, the group, Ark Encounter, won approval of incentives for its entire $172.5 million project. Because of funding problems, it withdrew that application and now is seeking approval for $73 million.
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Ark Encounter is applying to participate in a program that allows eligible tourism attractions a rebate of as much as 25 percent of the investment in the project. For this application, rebates from the state would be as much as $18.25 million.
The park is scheduled to open in summer 2016. Groundbreaking is set for next week.
Ark Encounter is affiliated with Answers in Genesis, which developed and operates the Creation Museum in Boone County. It follows a literal interpretation of the Bible and the belief, unlike science, that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.
Terry Sebastian, a spokesman for Gov. Steve Beshear, said, Beshear "is glad the project received preliminary approval today by the authority, and we wish the project success as it continues toward final approval to bring tourism and economic activity to Northern Kentucky."
Dave Muscato, a spokesman for American Atheists, said he was disappointed that the state panel gave preliminary approval to the Ark Encounter incentives.
"It's absolutely inappropriate and unconstitutional for the state to promote a religious view. This park will promote bad things, false things, and will give the impression that government is supporting this," Muscato said.
Asked whether his New Jersey-based group would sue to try to stop the use of the tax incentives, Muscato said, "We have not explored whether to legally challenge this, but that is not off the table."
Mike Zovath, Ark Encounter's co-founder and project coordinator, said it was "a real stretch" to say the state was promoting a religion with its incentives.
He said the state finance authority previously had granted tax incentives to Newport on the Levee, a retail and entertainment center in Newport.
"By doing that, the state is not sponsoring the acts and speeches of stand-up comedians who perform there. They're not sponsoring that any more than they are sponsoring what goes on at the Ark Encounter," Zovath said.
"This is purely an economic issue. This thing is going to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, $180 million in the first year of operation for the surrounding area."
He said the $180 million figure was determined by using mathematical formulas of the state's tourism industry.
Asked whether the park would try to evangelize its visitors to Christianity, Zovath said, "There will be an effort made to present the Gospel at the park. That has not been hidden at all from anything we have said.
"But we're not going to take your ticket and not let you leave the park until you convert."
The ark park is to be the first of five phases for the project. It has been designed as a wooden ark built with the help of Amish carpenters that will be 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and 55 feet high.
"It will be the largest timber-frame structure in the country, maybe in the world," Zovath said.
Visitors will be able to walk through it. The first phase will include a petting zoo, restaurants and a walking trail. Estimated adult admission is $33, with lower prices for children.
The other phases of the park, Zovath said, would be a retail center called The Walled City, the Tower of Babel, a walk through biblical history, and a 1st-century village.
The second phase might begin in about three years, Zovath said.
Members of the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority had little discussion on the preliminary approval. State Parks Commissioner Bob Stewart said more discussion, and a public hearing, would be held after the feasibility study was completed.
The authority has seven members, with one vacancy. Five members were present Tuesday: Keith J. Williams of Bowling Green, Bill Alverson of Paris, Joseph A. Clabes of Lexington, Kimberly M. Huston of Bards town and Eric W. Summe of Covington. Jenny L. Gibson of Madisonville was absent.
In other action, the panel unanimously gave preliminary approval for as much as $2.8 million in tax incentives for a 105-room Marriott Courtyard hotel near the Center for Rural Development in Somerset. The entire project is expected to cost $11.5 million.
The panel also approved a $99,395 loan for Southeast Vintners, a wine and brandy spirit manufacturer in Lexington.