Guided by God and Disney, life-size ark rises in Kentucky

Williamstown, Kentucky, expects a flood of Biblical proportions this summer -- of tourists eager to see a life-size replica of Noah's Ark.

The small town, which lies roughly 30 miles south of Cincinnati along I-75 in Northern Kentucky's scenic river region, is home to Ark Encounter, a theme park set to open July 7 whose centerpiece is a faithful reconstruction of the world's most famous lifeboat.

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The Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky, a life-size replica of Noah's Ark opening in July of 2016, measures 510 feet in length and 120,000 square feet.

ANSWERS IN GENESIS

Measuring 510 feet in length -- or 300 cubits, as specified in the Bible -- the vessel rising in Williamstown will be nearly as long as three Space Shuttles laid end to end and cover some 120,000 square feet. By comparison, the White House is 55,000 square feet.

The ark, described by its builders at the biggest timber-frame structure in the U.S., will also come stocked with hundreds of sculpted creatures in reference to the belief that God instructed Noah to bring along "two of every kind" of animal. A petting zoo with live animals is also in the works, while future phases of the project call for building the kind of antediluvian city Noah's family might have lived in, as well as the Tower of Babel.

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Answers in Genesis

Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, the faith-based group behind the $100 million project, makes no bones about Ark Encounter's expressly religious mission.

"We are an overtly Christian organization -- we don't hide that fact," said Ham, perhaps best known for his 2014 debate with TV personality Bill "the Science Guy" Nye about human evolution.

Ham said he hopes Ark Encounter, which will operate as a nonprofit subsidiary of Answers in Genesis, will encourage "people to actually talk about the Bible and the message of Christianity."

If this evangelical spirit is the prime mover for the ark, the project's appeal as a tourist attraction draws inspiration from a more earthly domain: Disney (DIS). Ham said Ark Encounter is borrowing a page from the entertainment giant's ever popular theme parks, along with other major attractions such as Universal Studios (NBCU), to promote Christianity in a way that "will captivate people's attention."

To date, much of that attention has been negative. In particular, critics have attacked Ark Encounter for requiring park employees and job candidates to sign a "statement of faith" affirming belief in the basic tenets of Christianity, a policy disclosed on the park's website as a condition for employment.

That policy has come into question partly because of the $18 million in tax incentives Kentucky officials granted Ark Encounter, with part of that money funding a designated highway exit for the park. After tourism officials initially moved to withdraw the preferences because of concerns about Ark Encounter's hiring practices, a federal judge ruled in January that Answers in Genesis had been denied its First Amendment rights and restored the incentives.

Ham defends the hiring policy at Ark Encounter, which is using an outside HR agency to screen job applicants, including for their religious beliefs. He also vigorously rejects claims that Ark Encounter is supported by public money.

"What we're doing in using our religious preference is saying that people who work at Ark Encounter will need to testify that they're Christian," he said, emphasizing that the project is completely privately funded and that "zero tax dollars" are involved because of the way the incentives are structured.

Ark Encounter has raised $36 million in individual donations and an additional $62 million in a December bond offering, according to Ham.

Julie Kirkpatrick, vice president of the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the tax incentives for Ark Encounter were granted under a program that gives local tourist attractions a rebate on sales taxes, allowing them to recoup a portion of their development costs.

"Ark Encounter meets the definition of a tourist attraction, and it will absolutely impact the Kentucky economy," she said. "I don't see much controversy."

What Kirkpatrick sees, and what Ark Encounter planners are promising, is a boat-load of jobs for Northern Kentucky, especially in communities like Williamstown that continue to face sluggish employment growth.

Ark Encounter could generate up to 21,000 jobs for the region over 10 years and up to $4 billion in revenue for Kentucky, according to a 2015 study conducted by a consulting firm hired by Answers in Genesis. The same study projected that the park could draw between 1.4 million and 2.2 million visitors per year, a figure based in part on the 300,000 people a year who visit the group's Creation Museum in nearby Petersburg, Kentucky.

Over the short term, Kirkpatrick expects Ark Encounter to create upwards of 2,000 jobs from the ongoing construction at the park and from a tourism-fueled boost in economic activity.

"The state will get a massive amount of income they wouldn't have gotten otherwise," Ham predicted.

"We're not out to attack people or cause problems," he added. "We're not hitting people on the head with the Bible. We want everyone to come."

Ark Encounter may well draw a torrent of visitors, but it won't be able to do one thing: float. The ark will be anchored to three cement columns designed to accommodate bathrooms and emergency exits.

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