FRANKFORT— The Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Board has approved $18 million in tax breaks for a controversial Christian theme park in Northern Kentucky.
The board unanimously voted on Tuesday to approve sales tax incentives for the Ark Encounter, a religious theme park to be built in Williamstown. The theme park is controlled by Answers in Genesis, a conservative Christian non-profit that also operates the Creation Museum.
The project is slated to include a facsimile of Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel, and will proselytize Christian evangelicalism to patrons, an Answers in Genesis spokesman said.
Finance board chairman Keith Williams said the project was evaluated like any other that comes before the panel, and a preliminary analysis of its economic impact showed benefits for the state.
“They could produce a good amount of tourism for the state of Kentucky,” said Williams, who was appointed by Gov. Steve Beshear, a supporter of the project. “It could help the hotel industry, the restaurant industry in that entire area. So if that is the case, and it does boost tourism, then they, yeah, they meet that criteria.”
Answers in Genesis Vice President Mike Zovath said using public money to fund his project is no different than state sponsorship of the arts and performance venues.
“They’re not sponsoring the speech of actors and stand-up comedians,” Zovath said. “So they’re not sponsoring that anymore than they’re sponsoring what goes on at the Ark Encounter, whatever that might be.
“This is purely an economic issue.”
The finance board will make a decision on whether to grant final approval on the incentives in the next month-and-a-half. The board is awaiting a final analysis of the project by a contracted consulting firm.
Critics contend that state incentives for the Ark Encounter blur the line between the separation of church and state.
The board previously approved over $43 million in tax breaks in 2011 for a more ambitious $173 million plan; the new, performance-based incentives now go toward a $78 million “first phase” of the Ark Encounter, and are good for 10 years. The state can revoke the incentives should the project fail to generate sufficient economic activity in the surrounding area.
In May, the project held a ceremonial groundbreaking that was attended by state lawmakers, including Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown.
It’s unclear how many jobs the project would create, or whether the company will allow non-Christian employees to work on the Ark Encounter. According to the Answers in Genesis website, a job posting for an industrial design position states that employees must agree to the company’s “statement of faith,” among other religious criteria.
When asked if the state would rescind the incentives in the event that discrimination is proven, Gil Lawson, a spokesman for the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, said in a statement: “Ark Encounter, like other applicants for these incentives, will be expected to follow all applicable state and federal laws.” Lawson refused to speculate on the hypothetical scenario.
He added that incentivizing the project isn’t an endorsement of Answers in Genesis’ brand of evangelical Christianity, which maintains that the Earth is about 6,000 years old and that humans and dinosaurs coexisted.
Instead, he said, the state’s interest in supporting the project is to promote tourism in the region.