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ARK: YES OR NO?

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By Jamie Baker-Nantz

Is the Ark really coming to Grant County?

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Yes, yes, yes – at least that’s what Grant County officials say about the proposed $150 million project that developers announced in December 2010 would locate on a 160-acre site off the Williamstown exit at Ky. 36.

“The developers have been in town this week, working on the project,” said Williamstown Mayor Rick Skinner.

Skinner said he met with some of the project developers for dinner on March 21.

“Basically, they just wanted to talk to us,” he said.

Skinner said there were also several meetings with supervisors in Williamstown’s electric, water and sewer departments.

“They’re still working on the project,” he said. “As soon as they get the approval in Frankfort, I’m sure there will be more movement. They’re on schedule, according to what they thought is what they’ve indicated to me.”

The project, which is a partnership between Ark Encounter LLC and Answers in Genesis, who built the Creation Museum in Petersburg, is a religious-themed attraction featuring the a full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark, live animal shows, a petting zoo, a 40-acred walled city, children’s play area, Tower of Babel, first century village, Journey

Through History taking visitors on a “trip through events of the bible” and bird sanctuary.

It is expected to create 900 full and part-time jobs and to bring 1.6 million visitors to the park annually.

Wade Gutman, director of the county’s Industrial Development Authority, was approached by the developers in September 2009 about a possible site for the project.

“Just because there have been no bulldozers moving dirt or deeds haven’t been transferred yet, doesn’t mean the project isn’t moving,” said Gutman.

Gutman said initially developers were shown a parcel of land in Dry Ridge, but they determined it wasn’t big enough for the project, which now has options on 800-acres of land in Williamstown.

“We’ve had almost weekly conversations with the developers since that time,” he said.

The developers have applied for tax incentives through the Kentucky Tourism Development Act. These incentives allow them to recover up to 25 percent of the cost of the project by recouping sales tax revenue paid to the state on tickets, lodging and other items.

Gutman said the project has been given preliminary approval by the state on what really amounts to sales tax breaks. He said final approval should be coming within the next couple of weeks.

“The state tourism commission’s study is nearly complete,” Gutman said. “Until that final approval, the land won’t be purchased because you can’t put the cart before the horse.”

While some have criticized the project because it has a religious theme and shouldn’t be eligible for tax incentives, local officials liken the project to Kentucky Speedway at Sparta.

Gutman said tourism is tourism and whether it’s a religious theme park is irrelevant.

“The chamber and IDA have been working on this project since 2009 and we haven’t treated it any different than when we recruited Dana to the area which took six months to a year to finalize,” Gutman said.

Mike Zovath, senior vice president of AIG, contacted Gutman and Grant County Judge-Executive Darrell Link to meet with the Troyer Group, an Indiana-based firm that specializes in “green” architecture, this week on the project.

Once approval is received on the project, construction is expected to begin a few months later and will be complete in 2014.

What will the project mean to the community?

“It is definitely going to change the business climate because there will be more business built, hotels, restaurants and other supporting businesses,” said Gutman.

That influx of business, is what Williamstown officials are hoping for and counting on.

“We need it and the county needs it,” said Stanley Woodyard, a member of Williamstown’s city council. “It’s how we go about it to make sure there’s not a cost to the public, which they’ve told us there won’t be.”

Woodyard said it was a legacy to leave for future generations.

“I’m for the future,” he said. “I’ve got grandkids and a great grandchild and I want things better for them.”
Councilman Robert Perry agreed.

“People just don’t realize what this will mean for Williamstown,” Perry said. “I think you’ll see our downtown come back because if we get the number of people they say we’re going to get they are going to want to spend a few days here and will spend their money locally.”

“I think it’s a good project for Williamstown and the county. It’s definitely going to have a good economic impact for our community,” said Councilman Charles Ed Wilson.

Gutman said he believes the community is anxious about the project, but it’s going to happen, despite or in spite of the speculation and talk at the morning coffee tables.

“If they don’t believe the local officials and what’s been in the newspaper, then come back in 2014 and see that it happened,” Gutman said.