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Williamstown council unmoved by offer from Noah’s Ark park on safety tax

Visitors entered on July 6, 2016, the opening day of the Ark Encounter near Williamstown. The attraction features what creators say is a life-size depiction of the boat that Noah and his family would have traveled on during a biblical flood, including dinosaurs that they claim existed at the time.
Visitors entered on July 6, 2016, the opening day of the Ark Encounter near Williamstown. The attraction features what creators say is a life-size depiction of the boat that Noah and his family would have traveled on during a biblical flood, including dinosaurs that they claim existed at the time. cbertram@herald-leader.com

A Noah’s Ark theme park has offered to pay a new safety tax for Williamstown’s emergency services, but only if it is capped at $500,000 a year.

That’s what the Williamstown City Council heard Wednesday night from City Attorney Jeffrey Shipp, although Ark Encounter officials did not attend the meeting.

Council members didn’t vote on the offer, but Mayor Rick Skinner said it was clear no one was interested.

“We just think it doesn’t work,” he said. “We want to have a sit-down meeting to get this worked out,” by the end of the week or early next week.

Skinner and others have been expecting a possible lawsuit over the tax, which passed in April and has been opposed by Ark Encounter officials ever since.

On June 29, Shipp rejected the theme park’s request to be exempt from the tax because it is a religious institution. He noted the amusement park had incorporated as a for-profit entity. On June 28, though, Ark Encounter sold its main $48 million parcel of land to a non-profit affiliate for $10. City officials believe that was the first step to becoming a non-profit, which would allow Ark Encounter to avoid all city, state and federal taxes.

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Ark Encounter, which opened last July, features a large-scale wooden ark with numerous exhibits, along with a petting zoo and a zip line course. The attraction promotes the belief that Earth is no more than 12,000 years old and people once mingled with dinosaurs. Tickets cost $40 per adult and $28 for children.

The proposed tax is 50 cents on every ticket sold at Williamstown’s three tourist venues, the Ark Encounter, the Williamstown Family Fun Park and Main Street Gardens, an event facility. City planners estimated the tax would raise about $715,000, mostly based on Ark Encounter’s projections of 1.4 million visitors the first year.

The city has already added two police officers, six part-time firefighters, two police cruisers, a new but already used fire truck and a tornado warning system that would be placed at Ark Encounter, Skinner said.

“We’re not building a rainy day fund,” Skinner said. “These are real services we’re dealing with for safety.”

Ark spokeswoman Melany Ethridge said Wednesday she would not comment on the ongoing discussions, but repeated the same quote from earlier this week: “We certainly want to contribute our fair share into the safety fund, and have always stated that view as we seek an equitable remedy. The Ark Encounter has expressed that sincere sentiment to Williamstown's leadership many times. As we continue talks with city officials, we remain hopeful.”

Ark Encounter went through a multi-year negotiation process to get state and local tax incentives approved, including an $18 million sales tax rebate, and a tax increment financing deal that gives them back 75 percent of property taxes due on the increase in land assessments for 30 years.

Skinner said he did not know how many times emergency crews had responded to Ark Encounter, but said he knew calls had increased.

“We’re strong financially but we don’t want to burden our citizens with the increases that resulted from us becoming a tourist town,” he said. “It has to be the corporate citizens who pay their share.”

Ark officials have said 1 million visitors visited the amusement park in its first year. The Ark was touted as an economic engine for Williamstown, but merchants in that town have said that they have not yet seen those effects.

A year after the opening of Ark Encounter Noah's ark park, small businesses in Williamstown one mile away have not been seeing enough customers coming from the ark park.

Group protests the anniversary of the opening of the Ark Encounter park in Williamstown.

Answers in Genesis researchers Georgia Purdom and Dr. Andrew Snelling recount the reactions they had seen from guests during opening day of the Noah's ark replica at Ark Encounter park in Williamstown on July 7th.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford

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