FRANKFORT - Kentucky is on the verge of offering Noah's Ark a tax break.
A state tourism board gave preliminary approval on Tuesday for up to $18 million in tax rebates for a proposed full-sized replica of the massive ark as described in the book of Genesis. In the Bible account, Noah and his family used the ark to escape a worldwide flood spurred by the wrath of God.
If the rebates are approved, the project's owners - Crosswater canyon, a nonprofit subsidiary of Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis ministry - would receive up to 25 percent of the $73 million anticipated cost of the project. The owners would get that money over 10 years only after the ark is built and open to the public.
Project co-founder Mike Zovath said organizers plan to use the rebates to invest in more attractions, including a replica of the Tower of Babel and a walled-city modeled after Biblical times - except it would include modern restaurants and shops that Zovath compared to "Downtown Disney."
But Zovath said the main goal of the project - dubbed Ark Encounter - is to present the gospel to park-goers. The proposed state support for a religious theme park has drawn the ire of groups like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
"We believe that the park is clearly a sectarian endeavor and should be ineligible from any tax incentives from the state," spokeswoman Sarah Jones said.
However, the criticisms have been ineffective. The project has the support of the state's Democratic governor. And Keith Williams, chairman of the board that gave preliminary approval to the deal on Tuesday, said the board strictly looks at a project's estimated economic impact on the state's tourism industry.
"Preliminarily, it looks like they could produce a good amount of tourism for the state of Kentucky," he said.
Kentucky's state government could make money off the deal. If the project attracts enough tourists, the state could collect more than $18 million in sales taxes. That's one of the things an independent consultant will review over the next several weeks before making a recommendation to the tourism board. State tourism cabinet spokesman Gil Lawson said the board usually does not approve projects that have a negative impact on the state's budget.
This is the second time Kentucky officials have approved a tax incentive for the ark, in Boone County. The first project would have included the Tower of Babel and the walled-city. Owners scrapped that project because they were not able to raise the $150 million needed to build it.
But after a highly publicized debate between Ken Ham and "Science Guy" Bill Nye, owners were able to raise enough money to begin construction on a smaller version of the park.