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After some intense questions and some tense moments of silence, Williamstown’s city council voted in favor of entering into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Ark Encounter.
Mike Zovath, senior vice president and Jim Parsons, attorney, for Answers in Genesis, the developer behind the Ark Encounter, came to the July 5 council meeting to assure council members that their approval of the agreement didn’t obligate the city financially, but would allow the project to continue to move forward.
“This is similar to the agreement executed last October by (former) Mayor Glenn Caldwell, the judge and industrial authority,” Parsons told the council.
Parsons said while the water and sewer needed for the project would come from the city, there would need to be another agreement concerning the expansion projects associated with the Ark Encounter.
Parsons signing the MOA was the next step of a long process.
“This basically means you’re not responsible for any debt,” Parsons said. “The city will have no obligation to pay unless you’ve pledged incremental revenue for the project. Local governments can issue bonds for conduit financing but the city would have no obligation to repay those bonds.”
Despite those assurances, city council members still had some questions concerning the project and an obligation of taxpayer’s money.
“An affirmative vote of this council would say, ‘we support the project under these conditions and if there’s a default we, the city, wouldn’t have to pay the bonds?’” asked councilman Charles Ed Wilson.
“That’s correct,” Parsons answered. “It’s an expression of intent. It shows your intent to support the project.”
After more discussion on the projects water and sewer needs, Parsons again assured council they weren’t financially obligated if they approved the agreement.
“You’re not obligating yourselves to do anything right now,” Parsons said. “It’s more an expression of intent that you support the project. We’re spending a lot of money right now but right now have to take council at their word.”
To which, councilman Kim Crupper, said he respected that position but maintained that the city council was obligated to keep the best interest of the city in mind when making decisions.
“The question is there’ll have to be a lot of money to make upgrades at the water and sewer plants and we can’t ask our taxpayers to bear this burden,” Crupper said.
Parsons said the developers were aware of issues that would need to be addressed in the future.
“We don’t want you to spend any money until we have worked those issues out and we know we’re going to have to address the water and sewer needs, but we aren’t there yet,” Parsons said.
Wilson said he was satisfied with the scrutiny the project received from the state and an outside consultant before the state approved tax incentives for the Ark.
“We need to stay focused and take a stand,” Wilson said. “It’s good for Grant County and good for Williamstown.”
Eddie Gabbert, a councilman, questioned Parsons and Zovath about the state’s involvement with upgrades to the Williamstown exit and when the city could see actual plans.
According to Parsons, the developers have met with transportation officials and had preliminary discussions. He also said the developers engineers had completed a concept design and given it to the Department of Transportation’s District Office in Ft. Mitchell.
Zovath said that while the city may feel the project has progressed slowly, the developers felt it was moving along.
“I’m amazed how fast we’ve progressed in the last year and a half,” Zovath said. “We’ve spent an amazing amount of money and we’re not asking for a dime from the city.”
He said AiG had spent roughly $1 million since choosing Williamstown as the site last fall.
“I respect you’ve spent a lot of time and money, but my biggest hang up with the project is why haven’t we, at some point and it needed to be sooner rather than later, been brought into a discussion on these issues. Those things don’t spring up in three to four months. I understand, according to the Bible, it takes time to build an ark,” Kim Crupper said.
Parsons assured the council that the MOA would simply move the project forward and all those issues would be addressed.
“We definitely need the Ark, but it’s what comes with it we need to work out,” said councilman Stanley Woodyard.
Discussion was held on a time frame for meeting to begin discussions on the issues, with a possible meeting in two weeks.
“This is a partnership and we need to work together to make it happen,” Parsons said.
Council then approved the MOA by a 5-to-0 vote. Glenn Caldwell was absent from the meeting.
Following the July 5th meeting, Williamstown Mayor Rick Skinner said a meeting with Ark Encounter representatives to discuss utilities had been scheduled for July 15.