By Beth Musgrave – firstname.lastname@example.org
FRANKFORT — A state tourism board gave preliminary approval on Monday for a controversial religious theme park to apply for up to $37 million in state tax incentives.
The Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority also gave final approval Monday for the Kentucky Speedway to collect up to $20.5 million in sales tax breaks over 10 years. The deal will allow the Northern Kentucky race track to recoup up to 25 percent of the $82 million it is spending on an expansion that will allow it to host a NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
The Kentucky Speedway is slated to hold its first NASCAR Sprint Cup race in July.
The six-member board voted unanimously to approve the incentives for the Kentucky Speedway in Gallatin County and to give preliminary approval of the Ark Encounter park in Grant County.
The centerpiece of the Ark Encounter park will be a 500-foot-by-75-foot wooden ark, which is billed as a replica of the biblical Noah’s Ark. The proposed project has garnered national and international attention, with critics questioning whether granting state tax incentives to the project would violate laws separating church and state.
The Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet will employ a third-party consultant to do an independent analysis of financial projections for the park and to see if the park would qualify for a full 25 percent rebate of its costs.
If the consultant finds that the project won’t generate enough economic activity, the board could decide against granting the full 25 percent return on the $150 million investment over 10 years. It could also decide not to grant the incentive at all.
It will likely take about four months to complete the independent analysis, tourism officials said Monday.
Todd Cassidy, the cabinet’s director of economic and community development, said the state pays no upfront money for the incentive. The state only pays money if the park meets its projections for ticket sales.
Cary Summers, the Ark park’s lead consultant, told the board on Monday that the project is expected to create about 900 full and part-time jobs after its completion and it will likely draw about 1.6 million visitors a year. Summers said the project is entirely privately funded and the group does not need a bank loan at this time.
Summers declined to name the investors in the project. The Answers in Genesis group, which started the Creation Museum that opened in Petersburg in May 2007, will handle daily operations of the park, which will include live and animatronic animals, a replica of the Tower of Babel, an amphitheater and a children’s play area.
Summers said after Monday’s meeting that the investors were not connected to a similar Biblical-themed park in Tennessee that never materialized.
The project is expected to be completed in 2014. Summers said he believed the deal to buy the land for the park would be signed Monday. Only 160 of the 800 acres is going to be used for the park, Summers said.
Backers of the project believe the Ark Encounter will be a success in large part because of the Creation Museum’s success. The museum has attracted nearly 1 million visitors since it opened in 2007, officials with Answers in Genesis have said.
Summers said the group’s data shows that “there is a high, high interest in this subject matter.”
Summers said the group is currently looking at possibly employing Amish carpenters from Kentucky to help build the Ark.
Gov. Steve Beshear has said the law does not allow the state to discriminate against a for-profit business because of its subject matter. But some groups concerned about the separation of church and state have said they may sue the state if the incentives are ultimately granted.
On the Kentucky Speedway project, an independent analysis by Rob Hunden of Hunden Strategic Partners showed the Kentucky Speedway could generate up to $47 million in additional tax revenue over the next 20 years. The expansion of the Speedway will likely generate about 584 new jobs over several years, Hunden said.
Hunden also found that the vast majority of people will be coming from out of state to attend the NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
Although the Kentucky Speedway has hosted other NASCAR events in the past, the Sprint Cup race will up the state’s national visibility and draw thousands of tourists from surrounding states, Hunden said.
“It’s really like going from the minor leagues to the major league,” Hunden said. “It’s a game-changer.”