Artist's rendering of the Ark Encounter, a Noah's Ark-themed park planned for a site west of Interstate 75 near Williamstown, Ky., about 50 miles south of Cincinnati (Photo: Answers in Genesis, answersingenesis.org)
By Chris Kenning, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
Founders of Northern Kentucky's controversial Creation Museum said Thursday that enough money has been raised to proceed with a biblical theme park built around a 510-foot replica of Noah's Ark.
The museum and its founder, President Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis, gained national attention earlier this month after a debate with Science Guy Bill Nye.
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"We're going to begin construction, and this is going to be great for the area," Ham said in an online announcement, indicating the 800-acre Ark Encounter park would open in summer 2016. "Let's build the ark."
The organization's website said it has raised $14.4 million in private donations toward the $24.5 million needed to build the ark alone. The complete first phase would total more than $70 million, officials have said. They did not say how much they had raised from a $62 million municipal bond offering.
Along with the wooden ark, which Ham said would be the largest timber-frame structure in the USA, the park eventually would include a pre-flood themed area, live animal shows and a Tower of Babel featuring a special-effects theater and a 1st-century village.
Northern Kentucky officials, including Williamstown Mayor Rick Skinner, said the project would bring hundreds of jobs and attract hotels and restaurants to a largely rural community about 50 miles south of Cincinnati.
"We're happy to be the home of the ark," Skinner said.
But Josh Rosenau, policy director for the California-based National Center for Science Education, said the ark park is objectionable because it displays "a false account of world history and biology" and presents it "as if it were fact."
Answers in Genesis and its Petersburg, Ky.-based Creation Museum about 40 miles from the planned ark park embrace a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis and a belief that the Earth is only 6,000 years old - a view that runs counter to established science. As a result, the organization and its projects have drawn widespread criticism and derision.
"God has burdened AiG to rebuild a full-size Noah's Ark," Ham wrote on his website.
But fundraising initially was slow following plans announced in 2010, Ham has said.
Late last year, the city of Williamstown, where the park is to be located, helped by offering $62 million in municipal bonds on behalf of the Christian group. The city isn't responsible for repaying the unsecured bonds, which would come from park revenues. Partly because of a lackluster response, the sale was extended in December.
How much they raised hasn't been immediately clear. The format of the announcement didn't allow reporters to ask questions. In fact, Ham spent much of the announcement railing against reporters and atheist bloggers for "distortions."
State development studies have predicted that Ark Encounter would draw hundreds of thousands of visitors and bring in a net fiscal impact of $119 million over 10 years, including sales and income taxes.
In 2011, the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority granted approval for up to $43.1 million in sales tax rebates over 10 years. State tourism law allows developers to recover up to 25% of a project's cost through a return of the sales tax paid by visitors on admission tickets, food, souvenirs and other expenses.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear has defended his support for the project saying that if the park were to fail, the state would not be out any money.
Answers in Genesis officials said they would continue raising money for various phases of the project, including lifetime "boarding passes" costing $3,000 for families and $2,000 for individuals. Ultimately the project is expected to cost more than $120 million.
Earlier this year, Bloomberg News reported that the ark project was drawing comparisons to tourist attractions from Alabama to Nebraska that have defaulted on such bonds and noted that it came with the added risk of legal challenges from those who believe the religious themes may violate the Constitution.
Groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State have argued that the state tourism department is supporting religion. But Rosenau said that despite his opposition, he does not think the sales-tax rebates would be a consitutional violation.
Theme park officials said they plan to break ground in May. Ark Encounter officials have begun to file permit applications for the park.