Politics & Government

Study: Ark Encounter could bring nearly 500,000 visitors in first year

Artist's rendering of Ark Encounter, a planned biblical theme park in Grant County.
Artist's rendering of Ark Encounter, a planned biblical theme park in Grant County.

A planned amusement park featuring a life-sized Noah's Ark in Northern Kentucky could bring just under 500,000 visitors to Grant County in its first year, and would eventually create between 500 and 700 new jobs, according to a new economic impact study on the $73 million project.

The number of visitors would swell to about 650,000 in year three before settling to about 400,000 a year by the end of the decade, but those projections for Ark Encounter are much less than the 1.2 million people and 900 full-time jobs projected in 2011.

Ken Ham, president and founder of Answers in Genesis, the parent company of the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, disputes the numbers in the report by Hunden Strategic Partners of Chicago.

Instead, he prefers to rely on the 2011 study done by America's Research Group, which is run by Britt Beemer, a co-author with Ham on one of his books. That study predicted 1.2 million visitors in the park's first year.

"That is the report that is most accurate," Ham said in a phone interview Wednesday.

State tourism officials, who requested the latest report, declined to comment.

The Dec. 3 Hunden report, which the Herald-Leader obtained using the Open Records Act, concludes the park is a legitimate tourist destination that qualifies it for state tourism tax incentives. However, state tourism officials disqualified the project for an incentive package worth up to $18.5 million on Dec. 10 because of concerns that its hiring requirements would discriminate based on religion.

Ham has since threatened to sue the state to get the incentives. "Any legal thing like that takes a long time and we're still working on it ... but it's still on the table," he said. "The main thing is that those sales tax rebates have nothing to do with building the Ark."

He said excavation of the park site is finishing and predicted that it will be open by summer 2016.

Hunden based its estimates of the project's economic impact on two scenarios: The first looks at the project as a general amusement park featuring a Noah's Ark. The other assumes the park is based on a more strict religious viewpoint, similar to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, which depicts the Creationist viewpoint that men lived alongside dinosaurs.

Under the first scenario, the project would create $40 million in new taxes in the first decade and create 787 jobs. The net fiscal impact to the state would be $11.4 million after accounting for the proposed tax incentives and a planned $11 million interchange off I-75 in Williamstown, where the Ark Encounter is breaking ground.

Under the second scenario, the project would create $34.2 million in new taxes and 514 jobs in the first decade. That net fiscal impact would be $4.9 million.

The report also gave new details on Ark Encounter's fundraising, which has experienced hurdles since 2010, when it was first planned as a $172 million project.

According to Hunden, the funding would come from about $45.5 million in bonds and $27.5 in private funding.

In 2013, Williamstown backed $62 million in taxable industrial building revenue bonds for the project.

Investors who purchased at least $100,000 in bonds were given incentives that included "Lifetime Family Boarding Passes" to the Ark and free lifetime admission to the Creation Museum, according to the report.

Donors also have the opportunity to sponsor building materials, the report said. They can buy a peg for $100, a plank for $1,000 or a beam for $5,000.

In addition, Williamstown has pledged to develop a local Tax Increment Financing district for the construction site and has pledged to give 75 percent of the increase in property taxes back to the project for 30 years.

The report also noted that attendance at the Creation Museum had decreased every year since it opened in 2007, with its lowest attendance in 2014. Ham disputed that characterization, saying attendance was up 31 percent last year.

Still, Ham said the new report was positive.

"This one took an ultra-conservative approach, but it still shows it has a great impact on the economy," he said.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader