2014 was supposed to bring the opening of a huge replica of Noah’s Ark in a theme park just off I-75 at Williamstown, Kentucky. But the developers are having trouble raising funds.
The hundred acre site for the multi-million dollar version of Noah’s Ark is about a 40 miles south of Cincinnati. But all you can see on the hill-top site today are posts marking the perimeter of what promoters hope will be a wooden replica of the ark, three stories high and 500 feet long. That’s almost one and a half football fields.
A key executive of the development firm says the ark will be the largest timber framed structure in the United States, possibly the world.
Designed to answer doubters’ questions
The project, called Ark Encounter, is the dream of Answers in Genesis - the organization that opened the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky in 2007. The mission of the Creation Museum is to bring the Bible to life and to help answer questions that cause people to doubt.
The exhibits in the Creation Museum convey a literal interpretation of the Bible’s creation story. The museum rejects evolution and insists that the earth was created only 6,000 years ago. If the Ark Encounter becomes a reality, it will be a much larger facility with the same message.
Mike Zovath is senior vice president of Answers in Genesis.
“We want to present the ark as a plausible event in history,” says Zovath. “And that if that piece of biblical history is true then Jesus Christ’s coming to earth and giving his life as a payment for our sins is equally true.”
In the sixth chapter of Genesis, God gave Noah very specific instructions on how to build the ark that Answers in Genesis intends to follow. The Bible says Noah, his extended family and animals of every species stayed in the ark during a 40-day rain, a 150-day flood, and eight more months while the earth dried out. Genesis also says Noah was 600 years old when he built the ark.
“We just want to make sure that people who have doubts come and see the actual ark to show people this can be built. It can be done,” Zovath says.
In a promotional video on the Ark Encounter web site, Answers in Genesis president Ken Ham says the Kentucky ark would have three floors, as the Bible specifies, and tourists could walk through and have their questions answered. He lists some of the questions:
“… How did people fit animals on the ark, how did he feed them and get rid of waste products, answer questions about the flood, fossils and so forth, but most important, point people to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Today’s challenge is raising millions of dollars
Funding Ark Encounter hasn’t been easy. Zovath says more than $14 million has been donated. But $73 million is needed to start construction and at least $125 million for the whole project, according to Answers in Genesis.
Late last year, the city of Williamstown offered a bond issue hoping investors would make up the difference. The bond closing was set for December but is now extended until at least February.
People closely connected with the bond issue will not answer questions. But investment experts point out that the bonds aren’t secure, are highly speculative, and a risky bet.
Published reports say the bond documents themselves list 39 risks to buyers, including the possibility of legal challenges over government incentives offered to a religious project.
Darrell Link, the judge executive of Grant County, is among Kentucky political leaders backing the project as a major tourist attraction.
“I suppose that we’ll find out in the next year or two just how quickly this is going to be a reality," Link said.
The state, county and city offered incentives and tax breaks, in hopes that the project will bring jobs to the area. Answers in Genesis bought a total of 800 acres, 600 of them for potential sale to other developers. Link said some additional property has already been sold in anticipation of the theme park.
“There has been tremendous interest from the commercial community. There are a number of people who have brought up properties in the Williamstown, Dry Ridge and even Crittenden areas,” he said.
Rick Skinner, the mayor of Williamstown, who was a key figure in the bond issue offering, is among those who declined to comment at this time.
Answers in Genesis says the theme park would employ 900 full and part time workers. And they expect hundreds of additional jobs in nearby hotels and restaurants.
Developers count on ‘God’s timing’
Zovath announced the plans for Ark Encounter in December 2010 with Governor Steve Beshear at his side. They anticipated breaking ground six months later. Now, Zovath says, the announcement was premature. It took them 10 years, he recalls, to raise enough money to build the less expensive Creation Museum.
“The whole project, just like the museum project, is really a matter of God’s timing as he moves people to donate or buy bonds or do other things to help the project along," Zovath says.
“What we found with the museum, once we broke ground and actually built this thing, people realized that it wasn’t a pipe dream. It was actually going to happen. We saw our donations go up and memberships for the museum increase fairly dramatically. We expect the same thing will happen with the ark.”
So Zovath and his staff, working out of a warehouse in Hebron, are doing some detailed design work for Ark Encounter. The team includes researchers who are determining what the animals in the ark would have looked like. Planners are also trying to decide if it would be feasible to bring some into the ark for short periods of time. A petting zoo is planned for the park.
Zovath says the ark will open two years after construction starts. When they start construction, he adds, is out of their control.