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Rumors were squashed, concerns were heard and questions answered during an Aug. 9 public meeting about the $150 million Ark Encounter project coming to Williamstown.
The community listening session drew approximately 500 attendees who heard details on the project and had a chance to offer their input as it moves closer to breaking ground.
It didn’t take long for Mike Zovath, senior vice president of Answers in Genesis, to tackle any controversy surrounding the Ark Encounter.
Zovath addressed head-on the constitutionality of Kentucky approving up to $43 million in tax breaks for bringing the religous-themed tourist attraction to the state .
“We got legal opinions from a law firm in Cincinnati,” he said. “The tax incentive the state is offering is not a constitutional issue. There just seems to be people out there who want to discriminate against a for-profit tourist attraction and deny them the same things they offer other tourist attractions just because this particular attraction happens to be putting out a particular message.”
“In our case, the Christian message. In reality, it’s discrimination against us if you don’t offer the Ark Encounter the same incentives you offer any other attraction, ” Zovath said.
Zovath said the state would net almost $31 million in sales taxes through the Ark Encounter in its first year if the project meets an estimated $591 million in revenue.
“It’s a big payout to the state as well as city and county governments,” he said. “The risk is shouldered by Ark Encounter investors. Very little, if any, risk is shouldered by local or state governments.”
Zovath also responded to criticism that the city of Williamstown has agreed to give the park a property tax discount of 75 percent over the next 30 years.
The offer stems from a memorandum of agreement that will be followed by a future formal tax-increment financing deal with Ark Encounters.
“This is probably a lower percentage than some of the projects in Lexington, Louisville, northern Kentucky and Bowling Green have received,” Zovath said. “It is just standard operating procedure for local governments to give businesses incentives to develop in their communities.”
The entire project, which will have a six-story wooden replica of Noah’s Ark, as well as live animal shows, a petting zoo, a 40-acre 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, is expected to be a 30- to 36-month construction process, said Zovath.
Groundbreaking could take place as early as late October.
The company hopes to finalize a site master plan and submit it to Grant County Planning and Zoning by Sept. 1 and finalize grading plans and submit them to the state by Sept. 15.
Utility plans will likely be submitted to the City of Williamstown also by Sept. 15.
Answers In Genesis will try to close on the purchase of any remaining properties in September and October, according to Zovath.
The six- to nine-month process of grading is planned to start in mid-November with construction to get in gear in spring 2012.
Building plans also have to be submitted and approved by the state.
“There’s probably close to 75 buildings that are going to go up,” Zovath said. “We’re building a small town as part of the Walled City plus all the other big buildings. So, there’s going to be a lot of activity going on. All of it will need heating, air conditioning and plumbing. It will mean a lot of work for folks.”
The grand opening of Ark Encounter is scheduled for sometime in 2014.
Zovath said the project will open all at once and not in stages.
Mayor Rick Skinner explained what the city’s role has been and will be as the Ark Encounter becomes closer to a reality.
“The city council has been very supportive of this, but at the same time they have been very cautious,” he said. “They control the money and they don’t want to put the city in any undue financial burden.”
Skinner said that the city’s new waste water treatment plant will be ready by the middle of September and it has enough capacity for what the Ark Encounter will need.
Although further expansion is not yet needed, the mayor said that there are plans for a fourth basin that can be added.
A new water plant will be needed, however, and Skinner said that the city is looking for sites.
The city will try to obtain grant funding to help pay for the project, which Skinner said would take two and a half years from design to completion.
“We would be right on line for coming online with our water plant about the time the Ark would need the water,” he said.
City officials also are in the process of talking contracting a city planner to work on a comprehensive zone plan.
“We want to redefine more where we want our development,” Skinner said. “We don’t want development areas where we don’t have our utilities yet. We want to use land to the highest and best use.”
One out of every five new jobs in Kentucky last year was a tourism or travel related job, according to Zovath.
Ark Encounter will employ about 900 full- and part-time employees and generate an annual payroll of $17 million.
Zovath said that it is estimated that the project will be responsible for more than 14,000 tourism or travel jobs in the general area during the first year of operation, including in the park and at hotels, restaurants and gas stations.
A study has estimated that the attraction will generate enough visitor traffic to support 20 100-room hotels in the area.
The hiring process at the park will start between six to nine months from Ark Encounter’s grand opening.
Restaurants and food vendors will likely be owned by the park, but Zovath said craft vendors may be able to lease space.
“We definitely want to use local labor and local companies as much as possible to be involved in this,” Zovath said.
A lot of discussion from the community centered around traffic concerns the park could create, especially after the issues recently at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta.
The main entrance will be on KY 36 east across the street from the Horse Hotel barn.
The staff and delivery entrance will be off of U.S. 25 around the Veterans Cemetery on Eibeck Lane.
Grant County Judge-Executive Darrell Link said the county has already met with the transportation cabinet about the feasibility of widening lanes and ramps.
Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock has committed to get the plans to the governor by January when the General Assembly meets, said Link.
“Regardless of the park, that design change needed to take place,” he said. “The commitment is there. I can’t tell you what the design will look like. We’re still soliciting information from the Ark Encounter so we can get a good feel for the time of day that folks will be getting off the ramp and going in to the park and if they are going to all leave at the same time or trickle out over a 24-hour period.”
Fire and ambulance
One concerned citizen asked about how the influx of people into the county would impact the fire protection and ambulance service.
Link said that he does not know what specific needs will be for fire protection, but addressing ambulance service, which is now provided through Dry Ridge Fire Department and Rural Metro, is necessary.
“If we were to have three accidents, all of our ambulances would be engaged,” he said. “That’s not sufficient for the 25,000 people who live in Grant County. We can do better. I will be asking the fiscal court to address the ambulance issue so we can not only care for you and our parents and grandparents, but also these visitors who come in here so we can have proper ambulance coverage. We don’t know what the exact cost of that would be or the scope of it. We’re taking it under advisement and study now. That’s a weakness.”
Another question posed by the audience asked how the school district would deal with any sudden growth that may come when the park opens.
Zovath said that many of the employees will tend to be older and retired without school-age children.
Williamstown Independent Schools Superintendent Sally Skinner said that long-term planning for future growth began with previous superintendents.
“We have long term plans to build an elementary school in the back and make our current elementary school a middle school,” she said. “So, we have plans to handle the growth. But, it will change the complexion of the school, I think.”
One resident asked if she would have to pay higher utility bills because Ark Encounter would be coming to town.
Mayor Skinner’s response drew applause.
“They should go down,” he said. “With the usage that we’ll have with the Ark and what they will use, we expect rates to go down.”
After the two-hour meeting, Zovath thanked the community for giving suggestions and expressing their concerns to make the project better.
“There’s some great suggestions and comments,” he said. “We’re kind of looking down in the weeds and you have people who are sharing their concerns and you don’t realize all of the concerns. It’s a tremendous plus to have something like this. I’d love to come to three or three or four or five more of these and keep the ideas coming.”