The last piece of land needed for a multi-year project to build a full-scale Noah's Ark on an 800-acre site in Williamstown, Ky., has been purchased by a group of developers led by Answers in Genesis, the biblical apologetics ministry announced Wednesday.
Despite tough economic times, project leaders are hoping to offset costs by building the "Ark Encounter" attraction in multiple phases over many years, and opening the Ark and other supporting elements during phase one.
Answers in Genesis (AiG), which also oversees the Creation Museum in Petersburg, had previously delayed ground-breaking for the estimated $24.5 million project after funds had only reached $4.4 million.
"We have decided to stop trying to predict the U.S. economy so we will announce ground breaking/construction as soon as we are funded," Mike Zovath, sr. vice president with Answers in Genesis, Special Projects, who is overseeing the Ark Encounter project, told The Christian Post via email.
Zovath said that while the complex design and engineering of the Ark is moving forward at a good pace, he would like to see the rate of the donations and private funding increase.
"We trust the Lord will continue to touch hearts of donors and private funding. We have seen surprising interest in lifetime memberships and we have already passed the $5 million mark in donations," he said.
The first phase of the project is expected to be completed in 18 to 24 months from the start of the grading.
Zovath, who was in charge of building AiG's high-tech Creation Museum, noted that "due to the rolling hills and ravines of this scenic property, about 800 acres are needed in order to get at least 160 useable acres, plus create a necessary buffer around the Ark Encounter attraction."
Mark Looy, co-founder and chief communications officer for Answers in Genesis, told The Christian Post late last December that his organization was happy to receive the more than $4 million (at that time) from donors.
"We are thrilled that even in a difficult economy, thousands of supportive people have already made donations to the full-size ark," Looy said. "It is important to point out that donations to Answers in Genesis for the Ark Encounter project are just one aspect of the Ark Encounter funding."
Looy explained that a "major part" of the funding was "through private equity from the Ark Encounter, LLC, a Missouri limited liability company, which will own the attraction."
The project has raised the eyebrows of groups such as the Americans United for Separation of Church and State who say the Ark should not receive tax incentives from the Kentucky government.
"Gov. Steve Beshear (D) has backed this project under the guise that it will create jobs. Maybe that's true, but so far the state's $40 million incentive package has not created a single useful thing for anyone," wrote Simon Brown of Americans United, as reported by CP.
"Even if the 'Ark Park' does eventually create jobs, the state is still wrong to be backing a fundamentalist religious organization," Brown insisted.
Gil Lawson, director of communications for the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet of Kentucky, told CP that the project had not yet taken advantage of the state's tax incentive program.
"Kentucky's tourism tax incentive programs do not take effect until the project is open to the public and collecting taxes from its patrons," Lawson said.
Zovath said he remains optimistic while cost concerns are always at the forefront. The final amount of land purchased to fulfill the 800 acres needed for the project was not known at press time.
"The ability to have higher occupancy on the Ark came after extensive design work and allows us to handle more guests at the main attraction and extend construction job opportunities over a 10-12 year period as we complete remaining planned attractions," he explained. "Phasing allows us to develop these new attractions based on what the market wants which makes an investment even more attractive. It also gives us a number of new advertising opportunities for coming attractions each year."
AiG's Creation Museum in Petersburg (40 miles from the Ark site) is drawing more than 300,000 visitors a year, according to the ministry. Plans are underway for expansion to handle the larger crowds expected during the opening of the Ark. A 1,000-seat auditorium has been completed, as has a new observatory with high-power telescopes.