Criticism Soars as Tax Breaks Granted for Noah's Ark Theme Park

Officials in Kentucky awarded more than $40 million in tax incentives to a biblical theme park Thursday afternoon, inciting criticism from several organizations including Americans United.

The Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority approved the aid for the Ark Encounter after evaluating a three-month study conducted by the independent research group Hunden Strategic Partners. Officials determined that millions of dollars in potential revenue would go to another state if the park was not built.

A collaboration between Ark Encounter and Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, the Ark Encounter is advertised to be a one-of-a-kind historically themed attraction which will include a full-size, all-wood Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel, and a walk through aviary, among other things.

Construction is projected to begin in 2011 and the park is scheduled to open in the spring of 2014.

The mission of the project, Mike Zovath, co-founder of Answers in Genesis, shared, as noted by The Associated Press, is to lend credence to the biblical account of a catastrophic flood and to dispel doubts that Noah could have fit two of every kind of animal in an ark.

With a cost of almost $150 million, Governor Steve Beshear announced his support of the for-profit endeavor early on, announcing that it would bring nearly 900 jobs to the state, including almost 550 full-time jobs.

“Bringing new jobs to Kentucky is my top priority ... I am happy about the economic impact this project will have on the Northern Kentucky region,” the governor expressed to the press.

Ham, the man behind the Creation Museum in Petersburg, also stated in an interview with CNN that the park would bring in an estimated $250 million to the state just in the first year alone.

Regardless of the potential economic incentives, several civil liberties activists and scientists are alarmed about the state’s financial involvement, with Beshear declaring that he planned to provide tax incentives to the developers of the park.

“The state of Kentucky should not be promoting the spread of fundamentalist Christianity or any other religious viewpoint,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in a statement.

“It’s perfectly fine for a private group to re-launch Noah’s ark, but the governor shouldn’t go along for the ride. The government should not be giving tax incentives for religious projects. Religion should be supported by voluntary donations, not the government.”

Let these folks build their fundamentalist Disneyland without government help, Lynn contended.

But Ham clarified previously that the government of Kentucky was not subsidizing the Ark Encounter, but instead, through the state’s Tourism Development Act, which is nondiscriminatory, any tourist attraction, including their biblically themed park, could apply for incentives regardless of the message.

Ark Encounter LLC applied for tax incentives through the act early in the year to receive partial refunds on sales tax the attraction would collect through ticket sales, concessions, etc. – in the form of rebates – collected only after the park met certain performance-based figures.

Over 80 percent of the sales revenues would be generated by out-of-state visitors, the founder of AiG emphasized, not from the state budget.

Hunden Strategic Partners was commissioned by the state to determine how much money tourists would spend at the future Ark Encounter and whether the attraction would have a net positive economic impact for Kentucky even after the rebates were factored in.

The HSP analysis noted that if the Ark Encounter followed Scenario A, then it would: benefit from a theme (Bible) which has “perhaps one of the largest built-in audiences in the U.S.,” predicting conservatively 1.2 million visitors the first year; bring an expected impact to the state of $119 million over 10 years; see, among many benefits, guests filling about 600,000 room nights per year at area hotels and see the hiring of over 3,000 people at the attraction.

The bottom line of the report’s executive summary was that overall, the project would score high on nearly all the critical success factors; it also met all criteria identified by the Kentucky Tourism Development Act.

Weighing in all the factors, the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority voted unanimously on Thursday and granted more than $40 million in tax rebates for the project otherwise being financed by a group of private investors, much to the relief of Zovath.

“The Ark Project will be great for Williamstown, Grant County, and Kentucky. It will bring much-needed revenue and jobs to the Commonwealth. I am satisfied with the HSP analysis because it confirms what we have believed for some time: the Ark Encounter is a viable and worthwhile project,” the AiG co-founder relayed in a statement.

“This was the last real hurdle for us as far as I’m concerned,” he said to AP, expecting groundbreaking as early as August, much to the disapproval of Lynn and many other opponents who called the funding “bad policy.”

“Beshear wants to launch this ark on a sea of tax breaks – money that will ultimately have to be made up by Kentucky taxpayers. This misguided project deserves to sink,” Lynn argued.

He also added, “I feel sorry for the children of Kentucky. At a time when they should be learning modern science, their public officials are subsidizing fundamentalist religion.”

Lynn revealed that AU would investigate further into the funding to see whether the tax package violated the constitutional separation of church and state, even though the Authority stated that the tax incentives would not take existing money “out of the state’s coffers.”

Despite all of the opposition, Zovath believes that the controversy generated by critics like Lynn has actually been good for the project.

“The more they try to paint us in a bad light, the more opportunities we have to explain the project,” he concluded.

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