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Update on the ark park

The controversy continues over the prospect of state tourism development incentives for Ark Encounter, the proposed creationist theme park in northern Kentucky. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal (December 1, 2010), "Ark Encounter, which will feature a 500-foot-long wooden replica of Noah's Ark containing live animals such as juvenile giraffes, is projected to cost $150 million and create 900 jobs ... The park, to be located on 800 acres in Grant County off Interstate 75, also will include a Walled City, live animal shows, a replica of the Tower of Babel, a 500-seat special-effects theater, an aviary and a first-century Middle Eastern village." Collaborating on the project are Ark Encounter LLC and the young-earth creationist ministry Answers in Genesis, which already operates a Creation "Museum" in northern Kentucky.

In a December 20, 2010, op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader (December 20, 2010), the Reverend Cynthia Cain, Rabbi Marc Kline, and the Reverend Mark D. Johnson, representing the board of directors of the Interfaith Alliance of the Bluegrass, protested the incentives, writing, "we do not believe our commonwealth should be giving tax incentives to an avowedly sectarian group, at least part of the purpose of which is to promote one particular brand of religion — namely fostering only one way to read, apply and understand scriptural revelation," and adding, "when Kentucky presents even the appearance of advancing or promoting one particular version of faith over other faiths, or over none, it does enormous damage to the future of interfaith understanding, respect and hope for peace that so many have worked so hard to ensure."

Nevertheless, on December 20, 2010, the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority voted unanimously to give preliminary approval for the park to apply for the incentives, which would allow Ark Encounter to recoup 25 percent of its development costs by retaining the sales tax generated by the project. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader (December 20, 2010), "a third-party consultant [will] do an independent analysis of financial projections for the park and to see if the park would qualify for a full 25 percent rebate of its costs. If the consultant finds that the project won't generate enough economic activity, the board could decide against granting the full 25 percent return on the $150 million investment over 10 years. It could also decide not to grant the incentive at all." The analysis is expected to take about four months to complete.

When Governor Steve Beshear (D) announced the project, he cited a feasibility study predicting that the park would attract 1.6 million visitors in its first year. But as the Lexington Herald-Leader (December 18, 2010) observed, "neither Beshear nor other state officials had seen or read the study, which was commissioned by Ark Encounter, LLC, the group building the theme park." The state lacks a copy of the study, and Ark Encounter declined to provide it to the Herald-Leader. The study, conducted by America's Research Group (whose founder Britt Beemer coauthored a book with Answers in Genesis's Ken Ham), is reportedly 10,000 pages in length, with a 200-page executive summary. "When someone asks me to do one of these studies, I'm thorough," Beemer told the newspaper, explaining that his firm conducted extensive telephone interviews with one thousand people across the country.

A further controversy over Ark Encounters centers on whether the park would be able to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring if it receives the state incentives. Answers in Genesis already requires its employees to endorse its statement of faith. Governor Beshear told the Louisville Courier-Journal (December 9, 2010), "We’re going to require that anybody that we deal with is going to obey all of the laws on hiring and not discriminate on hiring." But a consultant for the project told the conservative Christian on-line news source OneNewsNow (December 15, 2010), "There will be positions that will require Bible knowledge because ... we have certain things in there that are requiring biblical knowledge," raising the question — broached in Cain, Kline, and Johnson's op-ed — of who is to decide what constitutes genuine understanding of the Bible.