Although Kentucky officials rightly rejected up to $18 million in tax rebates for an overtly religious theme park last year, it seems some state lawmakers are still hell bent on doing everything in their power to offer public assistance to that attraction.
Those who read this blog regularly know all about Ark Encounter, a fundamentalist Christian theme park to be built in Williamstown, Ky., under the direction of the creationist ministry Answers in Genesis (AiG). The park will feature a 510-foot replica of Noah’s Ark; AiG head Ken Ham claims it will open next year.
After years of complaints by Americans United and others, the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet declined in December to give as much as $18 million in tax rebates to Ark Encounter. AiG is now suing the state over that lost money and Americans United has filed a motion to intervene in that case on behalf of Kentucky taxpayers.
While most media attention on the Ark Park has focused on the rebate, Ark Encounter has received millions of dollars in other forms of aid from both state and local lawmakers. The Ark Park has already received a 75 percent property tax break over 30 years from the City of Williamstown (a town of about 3,200); a planned $11 million road upgrade in a rural area that would almost exclusively facilitate traffic going to and from the park; a $200,000 gift from the Grant County Industrial Development Authority to make sure the project stays in that county; 100 acres of reduced-price land and, finally, a $62 million municipal bond issue from Williamstown that has kept this project afloat after years of delays and budget shortfalls.
Apparently some elected officials felt even that massive amount of help just wasn’t enough. Last week, Kentucky Sens. Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) and Chris Girdler (R-Somerset) said they will file a bill (SB 129) that could stop public schools from ending summer vacation before the first Monday closest to August 26. This legislation could be considered in 2016, the Grant County News reported.
The motivation behind this proposal, Thayer said, is to give more tourists the opportunity to visit state attractions in August – such as Ark Encounter.
“Grant County is set to become a major tourist destination due to the presence of the Ark,” he said. “But there won’t be many families from Kentucky visiting in August if we continue with the current calendar.”
Thayer added that Kentucky’s “parks are empty in August, except for a few visitors from places like Michigan and Indiana, which have much later school start dates.” (Many public schools in Kentucky are back in session by mid-August.)
What Thayer doesn’t realize is that his proposal actually undermines the idea that the Ark Park will be a major tourist attraction. Ham commissioned a study that claimed as many as 2.2 million people could visit Ark Encounter in its first year, but it was conducted by the same Ham-affiliated group that came up with wildly inflated figures in an earlier study, which conflicted with the findings of an independent consultant hired by Kentucky. Even if that new projection were close to accurate (and it’s probably not), surely many of those visitors would come from outside the state. So if millions of people want to see a giant replica of Noah’s Ark, as Ham claims they do, how much difference would it make if a few more local kids start school later?
It is unclear at this point whether or not the school scheduling change would cost the state any money should it pass. But public school officials are not in favor of this idea.
“It may help tourism, however, I think it could potentially hurt many Kentucky children,” Williamstown Elementary Principal David Poer said. “I do not believe it will pass. If it does, most districts probably won’t like it. Just one more instance when government seeks to overstep their bounds. Again, this is a local issue and not a state or national issue.”
It is long past time for Kentucky’s lawmakers to stop assisting the Ark Park in every way possible because it is a First Amendment issue when government props up a project with a clear religious mission. And if Ham’s attraction will be as popular as he claims, he won’t need any help from taxpayers.
But if politicians like Thayer and Girdler insist on keeping the Ark Park afloat, they will find themselves embroiled in more controversy. Kentucky is already facing legal action thanks to its involvement with Ark Encounter. What else will it take for the Bluegrass State to get the message?