Visitors, protesters turn out for Ark Encounter opening in Grant County

Published: Jul. 7, 2016 at 6:54 AM EDT
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People who visited a life-size replica of Noah's Ark didn't just file in two by two on its opening day, they flooded into the theme park by the thousands to see the massive ark that is almost two football fields long and seven stories tall.

Dozens of critics also showed up to protest the Ark Park on Thursday.

They placed a sign near I-75 that depicted people drowning outside the ark. The sign read, "Genocide and Incest Park."

Answers in Genesis, the ministry behind the Christian-themed attraction, hopes interest in Ark Encounter, as the park is called, will eventually wash away the controversy that has surrounded the $100 million project virtually since planning started nearly a decade ago. For their part, state and local officials hope the park will generate the jobs and tax revenue that its backers think it will.

One thing is not in dispute -- this is one big ark. The replica of the world's most famous lifeboat, which sits on 800 acres in Northern Kentucky's scenic river region some 30 miles south of Cincinnati, measures 510 feet in length, or 300 cubits, as specified in the Bible. That makes it nearly as long as three Space Shuttles laid end to end. Ark Encounter covers some 120,000 square feet, or more than twice as large as the White House.

Described by its builders at the biggest timber-frame structure in the U.S., the ark comes stocked with hundreds of sculpted creatures. The park also features a petting zoo, daily animal shows, zip lines, live entertainment and a 1,500-seat restaurant. Future phases of the project call for building the kind of antediluvian city Noah's family might have lived in, as well as the Tower of Babel.

Standard admission is $40 for adults, $31 for seniors and $28 for children, while parking will cost an additional $10.

"I believe you're going to find all sorts of people from all walks of life with all sorts of religious backgrounds who are going to come here," said Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Tuesday for VIPs and media invited to Ark Encounter. "And even if they don't share our biblical view, they can't help but be impressed by the structure, craftsmanship and by the attention to detail of the world-class exhibits inside."

Ham, perhaps best known for his 2014 debate with TV personality Bill "the Science Guy" Nye about human evolution, told CBS MoneyWatch he hopes Ark Encounter will encourage "people to actually talk about the Bible and the message of Christianity."

If this evangelical spirit is the prime mover for the ark, the project's appeal as a tourist attraction draws inspiration from a more earthly domain: Disney (DIS). Ham said Ark Encounter is borrowing a page from the entertainment giant's ever-popular theme parks, along with other major attractions such as Universal Studios (NBCU), to promote Christianity in a way that "will captivate people's attention."

To date, much of that attention has been negative. In particular, critics have attacked Ark Encounter for requiring park employees and job candidates to sign a "statement of faith" affirming belief in the basic tenets of Christianity, a policy disclosed on the park's website as a condition for employment.

That policy has come into question partly because of the $18 million in tax incentives Kentucky officials granted Ark Encounter, with part of that money funding a designated highway exit for the park. After tourism officials initially moved to withdraw the preferences because of concerns about Ark Encounter's hiring practices, a federal judge ruled in January that Answers in Genesis had been denied its First Amendment rights and restored the incentives.

Ham defends the hiring policy at Ark Encounter, which is using an outside HR agency to screen job applicants, including for their religious beliefs. He also vigorously rejects claims that Ark Encounter is supported by public money.

"What we're doing in using our religious preference is saying that people who work at Ark Encounter will need to testify that they're Christian," he said, emphasizing that the project is completely privately funded and that "zero tax dollars" are involved because of the way the incentives are structured.

Ark Encounter has raised $36 million in individual donations and an additional $62 million in a December bond offering, according to Ham.

Julie Kirkpatrick, vice president of the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the tax incentives for Ark Encounter were granted under a program that gives local tourist attractions a rebate on sales taxes, allowing them to recoup a portion of their development costs.

"Ark Encounter meets the definition of a tourist attraction, and it will absolutely impact the Kentucky economy," she said. "I don't see much controversy."

What Kirkpatrick sees, and what Ark Encounter planners are promising, is a boatload of jobs for Northern Kentucky, especially in communities like Williamstown that continue to face sluggish employment growth.

Ark Encounter could generate up to 21,000 jobs for the region over 10 years and up to $4 billion in revenue for Kentucky, according to a 2015 study conducted by a consulting firm hired by Answers in Genesis. The same study projected that the park could draw between 1.4 million and 2.2 million visitors per year, a figure based in part on the 300,000 people a year who visit the group's Creation Museum in nearby Petersburg, Kentucky.

Over the short term, Kirkpatrick expects Ark Encounter to create upwards of 2,000 jobs from the ongoing construction at the park and from a tourism-fueled boost in economic activity.

"The state will get a massive amount of income they wouldn't have gotten otherwise," Ham predicted.

"We're not out to attack people or cause problems," he added. "We're not hitting people on the head with the Bible. We want everyone to come."

Ark Encounter may well draw a torrent of visitors, but it won't be able to do one thing: float. The ark will be anchored to three cement columns designed to accommodate bathrooms and emergency exits.