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A stagnant economy has slowed, even halted, development on large-scale projects across the nation, but the Ark Encounter is moving, albeit slower than anticipated.
Work at the site has begun, but it may be hard to see from the perimeter.
There are no giant yellow earthmovers or dump trucks at the site, but developers say that doesn’t mean there’s not work being done.
“The recession and the lack of any meaningful economic recovery in the nation has certainly slowed revenue raising, so yes, the economic climate has slowed the progress of the Ark Encounter,” said Mike Zovath, senior vice president and chief operations officer of the Ark Encounter.
Completion of the project, which will feature 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, a Tower of Babel, first century village and a Journey Through History exhibit, was supposed to begin in 2011 with a completion date of 2014.
“The slow economy doesn’t mean, however, that little has been going on over the past year,” said Zovath. “Naturally, we understand that the community wants to see bulldozers and other activity on the site, but rest assured that a lot of planning, spending and effort is going on behind the scenes for the project to begin construction as soon as it is funded.”
Zovath said in the last year, the AE has invested over $6 million in buying the land with another $3 million being spent on site and exhibit design.
The buzz of chainsaws and crashing of dead wood broke the silence of a chilly January afternoon as Tim Schmitt, landscape architect for the Ark Encounter, and a crew of two began cutting down trees on the 800-acre site just off Ky. 36 in Williamstown earlier this month.
As of Jan. 18, they had cut down trees on approximately 21 of 53 acres.
“We’re actually moving faster than we anticipated,” Schmitt said.
Tree clearing is expected to be completed by the end of March as part of phase-one of the project.
Developers had to cut the trees down before the endangered Indiana Bats made their way to Grant County to nest in Shag Bark Hickory trees found on the Ark property. The Indiana Bat is one of 13 bats on the federal engendered species list.
Zovath said while the trees are being cleared, the architectural firm is working on securing construction permits, which include permits for waterways, encroachments, erosion control, grading and building permits for the Ark itself.
“The firm we have hired estimates the permit acquisition process will take six to nine months and we expect to spend more than $2.4 million. Once we have all of the permits, we will be ready to begin the construction/bidding process. We will need the rest of the construction funds to come in to begin construction,” Zovath said.
To date, about $12 million has been raised for the project, leaving another $12.5 million, still to be raised.
Zovath said that donations in November and December 2012 were strong.
“They were very encouraging and that allows us to keep moving forward,” he said.
Because of the economy and its impact on fundraising, the timeline for the project has changed and is dependent upon the amount of time required to get the funding in place.
“The Grant County community can rest assured that we are totally committed to opening the Ark Encounter. We have already invested a large amount of time and money in the project and plan to continue to plan and invest,” Zovath said.
That’s good news for local officials and residents who wondered if Grant County would actually see the project become reality.
“I’m very confident the project is coming,” said Williamstown Mayor Rick Skinner. “We’re having conversations or exchanging emails at least every other week, sometimes more with the developers.”
Skinner said the city recently met with information technology specialists concerning their IT needs at the park and how the city could provide those services.
“We’re working now on how to keep their communications and provide WIFI within the construction area,” Skinner said.
Zovath said the project will utilize as many local businesses as possible and still build “green.”
“Using the local businesses not only keeps the local economy strong and provides needed jobs, it also keeps the energy footprint smaller because using businesses closer to the site requires less energy to transport materials,” Zovath said.
Zovath sees interest in the Ark Park growing, especially in light of a movie release in 2014 on Noah’s Ark featuring Russell Crowe.
“The Ark remains a popular subject all over the world,” he said. “With phases being built every few years after the grand opening of the massive ship itself, we expect the Ark Encounter to become a very popular destination of families all over the world.”