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The Ark Encounter project is moving.
Even though no dirt has been moved since the $150 million project was announced in November, there’s been much activity, mostly getting agreements signed, property purchased and data gathered.
The project, which will involve a full-scale wooden replica of Noah’s Ark, as well as a bird sanctuary, a biblical village and animal shows, is on track for a ground breaking ceremony in late summer.
A press conference was held late last year in Frankfort to release details of the massive tourism project. Following the announcement, the project’s developers asked the state to approve tax incentives, which would allow them to recoup some of the cost of building the project.
Once the Tax Increment Financing or TIF zone was granted, the developers moved into the property acquisition phase and are in the process of finalizing the purchase of several hundred acres off the Williamstown exit at KY 36.
Next came the need for the city of Williamstown, the Grant County Fiscal Court and the Grant County Industrial Development Authority to enter into an agreement or Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) in support of the project.
The IDA board and fiscal court adopted the MOA with little discussion, while the Williamstown City Council spent over an hour questioning Zovath and Jim Parsons, an attorney for Answers in Genesis (AiG) about whether or not the taxpayers would be obligated in any way for needed utility upgrades that the project required.
“You’re not obligating yourselves to do anything right now,” Parsons said in the July 5 council meeting. “It’s more an expression of intent that you support the project.”
Because of the concerns council members raised on the possible need to build a new water plant or add additional $1.5 million wastewater basin at the new sewer plant which is under construction, a meeting was held with council representatives and the developers last week.
Following that meeting, Skinner said the developers’ preliminary figures indicate a fourth basin won’t be needed at the sewer plant and instead of a peak capacity of 730,000 gallons of waste water a day the Ark Encounter may use, the figure is closer to roughly 312,000 gallons.
“These numbers are very different from the ones that were first thrown out and they’ll make a big difference. What’s important for the citizens to know is that, at this point, the city taxpayers are obligated to nothing,” said Skinner.
Skinner said the city council, regardless of the Ark project, had begun to look at putting a vision for the city’s future into a revised comprehensive plan.
One of those projects includes a new water treatment plant.
“We had already considered building a new plant because of the age of our existing plant,” Skinner said.
The city’s current plant was constructed in 1964.
The city took advantage of services provided by the Northern Kentucky Area Development District and had an environmental impact study completed on property they’re considering purchasing for a new water plant.
The city has also been granted a $2 million federal economic development grant and a $1 million community development block grant to help offset costs of a water plant which would cost $12 million with a capacity of producing four million gallons per day.
“We’re close to needing a new water plant, with or without the Ark,” Skinner said.
As far as the Ark Encounter, the next step is to sign definitive agreements, which will probably take a month or so to put in place. This agreement will spell out exactly what the Ark project needs in terms of utilities.
“The definitive agreement tells us the amount of water, wastewater and electricity the project needs and the city will sign off saying we can provide it,” Skinner said.
As far as cost to the taxpayers for upgrades, Skinner said the project should bear those costs.
“If we increase the volume for this project, we’re going to have money to cover the debt service,” Skinner said. “We won’t need additional money, so we’ll actually be able to lower our rates on waste water.”
The Ark project will change Williamstown and the rest of the county.
In anticipation of those changes, Williamstown has hired a planner with the Kentucky League of Cities to assist them in updating their comprehensive plan.
As part of the plan update, the city has planned a community forum at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 9 at Williamstown High School to allow the public to meet with city officials and Ark developers for a question and answer session.
“We want to have a plan in place because we want the highest and best use for land in the city,” Skinner said.
The project is expected to employ more than 900 full and part-time employees, with some jobs paying up to $15 hour.
That got the notice of local officials and generated excitement about the project.
“There’s no doubt in my mind this is coming and the city feels it’s up to us to get a handle on this and this open discussion with the public is a chance to hear their concerns and get their input,” Skinner said.