In Depth: Beshear Defends Tax Breaks For Theme Park

State tax breaks are being offered as an incentive to lure a religious theme park to northern Kentucky and questions are being raised about such use of public dollars 

Audio MP3

The same people who developed the $30 million Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, are now envisioning an 800-acre religious theme park featuring a full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark.  The park, to be called Ark Encounter, is proposed for farmland along I-75 in Grant County.  Mike Zovath of Answers in Genesis says the $150 million project will be privately funded.

“The ministry, Answers in Genesis, will be the managing partner, or the managing member of the LLC,” said Zovath.  “And as the managing member, we’ll be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the whole park, to include the Ark as well as a number of other attractions that are being designed and developed to accommodate the millions of guests that we expect to come to the park.”

Zovath says the park will also have a Walled City, a replica of the Tower or Babel, a 500-seat special effects theatre and a first-century Middle Eastern village.  The Ark alone, to be built completely of wood and to biblical dimensions, will cost $25 million.  It will rest at the north shore of a large lake and be the hub for a daily “parade of animals.”  It won’t be in the water, but would it float?

“Yes, it actually would!” said Cary Summers.  “Yeah, it would.  We’re going to lock it down, but it would.  No, it really would!”

That’s Cary Summers, the lead consultant on the project.  Summers predicts the park will attract 1.6 million visitors annually and employ around 900 full and part-time staff.

“In year one, because of the spin-offs of the operations – which is hotels and restaurants and all the ripple effect as we call it – it actually produces 14,000 jobs the first year,” said Summers.  “And that’s because of the ripple effect.  Now that doesn’t count all the construction jobs that will be going on.  Construction of this project takes between 30 and 36 months.”

Those job numbers are music to the ears of Grant County Judge-Executive Darrell Link.

“Our unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent – those that we can recognize,” said Link.  “And to bring the jobs and opportunity that this project is coming to our town and our community, just extends my Thanksgiving week a whole another week!”

Link, Summers and Zovath all spoke at a news conference at the State Capitol, where Gov. Steve Beshear revealed the state is extending performance-based tax incentives to the park.  Similar tax breaks helped developers expand the Kentucky Speedway at Sparta to bring a NASCAR Sprint Cup race to Kentucky next July.  Asked by reporters about using taxpayer dollars for a religious theme park, Beshear – a former attorney general – expressed confidence in its legality.

“We have reviewed this from a legal standpoint and the application complies with our laws,” said Beshear.  “There is nothing even remotely unconstitutional about a for-profit organization coming in and investing $150 million to create jobs in Kentucky and bring tourism to Kentucky.”

Will other religions get the same treatment if they want to open theme parks in Kentucky?

“You know, each application stands on its own,” said Beshear.  “And whatever groups want to come in here and talk about investing and creating tourist attractions, we’re certainly open to talking with them.”

Gov. Beshear says, “This is a huge deal.”  He says project developers predict 80 percent of visitors to the park will come from out of state and the economic impact on Kentucky will be around $214 million the first year of operation, rising to $250 million by year five.  If all goes as planned, the park will open in the spring of 2014.

By Tony McVeigh

Veteran broadcast journalist Tony McVeigh has been covering Kentucky politics since 1986, reporting for Clear Channel Communications before joining Kentucky Public Radio in 2004. His stories are aired by seven KPR affiliates, whose signals blanket the Commonwealth and parts of surrounding states. McVeigh began his broadcasting career at WRFC in Athens, Georgia, while earning a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Georgia. He has extensive anchor/reporter experience, including stints with South Carolina Network and Georgia Radio News Service in Atlanta. In 2007 and 2008, McVeigh was named Best Radio Reporter in the Kentucky Associated Press Awards. He also picked up consecutive AP Awards for Best Political Coverage. McVeigh won four Kentucky AP Awards in 2009, six in 2010 - including Best Political Coverage and Best Hard News Feature - and three in 2011. His coverage of the 2007 Kentucky governor's race topped the Political Reporting category of the Society of Professional Journalists Green Eyeshade Awards of 2008. In 2009, McVeigh placed second in Courts and Law Reporting in the Atlanta-based competition for journalists in 11 Southern states. McVeigh is also the proud recipient of an Individual Liberty Award from the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The Brunswick, Georgia, native is a die-hard UGA football fan who enjoys photography, astronomy, live music, hiking Kentucky's Red River Gorge and exploring the state's beautiful back roads. McVeigh and his big, fat, black cat Simon, reside in Frankfort, KY.