Bible-themed park construction to begin in Grant County, predicted to flood local economy with cash

WILLIAMSTOWN, Ky. – What the Bible said took Noah 120 years, will take Mike Zovath, Mark Looy and Ken Ham just two.

Zovath, Looy and Ham—co-founders of Answers in Genesis, the parent company and ministry behind the Creation Museum—will have hundreds of hands to create an ark, the first phase of a Bible-themed educational park in Williamstown, Ky., called Ark Encounter.

After eight years of planning, fundraising and theological research, construction will begin on ‘Ark Encounter: Larger Than Life’ in May. The park is slated to open to the public the summer of 2016, giving visitors the opportunity to learn how and why to “trust the Bible and its teachings” according to Zovath.

“[Ark Encounters] is an extension of the message of the ministry—the Bible is authoritative and true,” Zovath said of the project that he foresees as becoming a local economic force.

Flooding Not Necessary: The Building Of An Ark

More than 200 of the 800 acres of rolling, sprawling farmland the ministry purchased for $4 million, will be transformed into a step back into Biblical times beginning this spring, beginning with an ark.

Phase I of Ark Encounter, the ark itself, is maybe the most massive of all five phases within the park. From idea to production, it has been an eight-year journey for Answers in Genesis to create the ‘most well-known story worldwide’ from the Bible, said Zovath.

“[The ark] has a popularity on its own—even if you’re not interested in the Bible, you’ll want to see this giant exhibit,” he said about the only full-sized, timber-framed ark in the world. 

In 2006, even before the Creation Museum was finished, Zovath, Looy and Ham—who is known most recently for his live debate with Bill Nye, “The Science Guy”—drummed up the idea behind the park.

At first, the spiritually devout team of three, who met in 1994 and immediately shared a bond for educating the masses about the Bible, bought 20 acres of farmland, but quickly realized that wouldn’t get them close to the capacity they were looking to fill. So from there they set out on a quest in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana for more acreage, when they happened upon several hundred rural acres in Williamstown, untapped and ripe for the picking.

Fast-forward to today, 16 employees, nine of whom are designers, sit inside a Hebron, Ky., warehouse, glued to their computers, tirelessly sketching out the details of Ark Encounter. Zovath, senior vice president of Answers in Genesis, oversees the work to make sure the projected construction and completion dates are on target.

Allen Greene, exhibit designer, works on some final touches for Ark Encounter. Jessica Noll | WCPO

The design team has a keen eye for details. The plan will be genuine to the original ark as detailed in the Bible, down to wooden pegs used to hold planks together and the measurements used, dating back to the B.C. era.

The ark, which will be lifted 12 feet off of the ground, will be 85-feet wide, 51-feet tall, and 510-feet long. In “cubits” according to the Bible, that would be 50-cubits wide, 30- cubits tall, and 300-cubits long. In Hebrew, a cubit is measured from the tip of your finger to your elbow.

The structure will include 132 bays, spanning across three themed floors.

The first floor will give visitors the opportunity to learn the types of animals the Bible said Noah had on his ark.

The second level will detail how the Bible said Noah and his deck hands cared for the nearly 4,000 animals aboard the ark, including birds, reptiles and several species of land animals. There will be a handful of live animals on board that are brought in each morning before opening, like a petting zoo. The attraction will also include robotic animals.

The third floor, according to the Bible, became home for Noah and his family. In the attraction, it will intricately showcase how the designers believe the family lived on the ark 4,350 years ago. On the attraction visitors will see and hear Noah via a life-sized, animatronic version of the elderly, gray-haired man, preaching his last sermon from 2349 B.C., when he warned others of the flood to come prior to boarding the ark.

Ark Encounter will include an animatronic Noah, like this one at the Creation Museum. Jessica Noll | WCPO

The ark will also include a theater and designated area demonstrating how cave men lived and the ice age occurred.

The realism, however, lies in the details, Zovath said.

“Just for lighting, a lot of thought and detail is going into it,” Zovath said, holding up prototypes including an energy-efficient flickering light that replicates a burning candle. The ark will need at least 300 lanterns to light the visitors’ way along the rustic ship.

The ark, according to Zovath, will be the largest timber-frame constructed structure in the United States, if not the world, when it is completed.

“We’ll use a variety of wood for the structural timbers, the siding and the trim,” he said. “Spruce, hickory, oak, pine to name a few—a lot of wooden pegs to join the timber framing, but also nails, iron strapping and bolts.”

“We want to teach the point that in Genesis we’re told that, before the flood, Tubal-Cain was an instructor of every craftsman in bronze and iron, and to teach that ancient man was creative and intelligent, not a brutish cave dweller,” Zovath explained. “The lighting will replicate oil lamps, but will be L.E.D. to keep energy costs down and reduce heat in the ark, which also reduces the size of the HVAC units required for guests’ comfort.”

Hefty Price Tag Promises Golden Return

Creating the park is estimated to cost from $140 - $150 million.

Phase I, which includes the ark exhibit, will cost the most of all the park's phases, totaling $74 million.

That amount includes, the ark’s structure for $26 million, parking lots for $7-8 million, and other infrastructure necessities like plumbing and electricity, which will service the entire park. 

With only $14 million raised in private donations, Zovath said that the ministry needed $45 million to get construction underway.

After a flood of donations from more than 10,000 people, and a municipal bond offering, issued by the city of Williamstown in October 2013, in which more than 500 supporters who purchased a minimum bond of $5,000, the ministry was able to raise $45 million. The bonds will be repaid with the park’s predicted revenue.

The ministry’s goal is to raise an additional $15 million through donations and memberships over the next two years in order to obtain the needed funds for the remaining cost for Phase I.

Answers in Genesis is forecasting 1.6 million visitors to Ark Encounter during its first year. With an average admission cost of $34, the ministry expects $40 million in gross revenue for the first year.

If the team’s sister project, the Creation Museum, which opened its doors in 2007, is any indication of the presumed popularity among visitors, Ark Encounter is in for a crowd.

The ministry projected 250,000 visitors in its first year, and 200,000 visitors each year thereafter, said Looy. The museum exceeded those expectations by thousands, reeling in 404,000 the first year, and continue to do so by averaging nearly 300,000 since opening—sometimes with 4,000 visitors a day during the popular summer months, he said.

“[We’ve been] blessed with very strong attendance, better than our projections,” Looy said of the museums 2 million visitors to date. 

The Creation Museum cost $27 million to build, through donations—which on average were $120, Looy said.

Additional exhibits were built over the years, tallying the grand total to $37 million.

“Several thousand people across the country donated to get the museum built,” he said. “The vision of this project was an outreach to the entire country, and the world.”

According to a regional study, Looy said the museum’s visitors alone have brought $60 million into the local economy annually, by eating at restaurants, staying in hotels and shopping.

Looy and Zovath believe that the park and museum will go hand-in-hand for visitors and will help boost the area's economy.

“We expect that 15 to 20 percent of Ark Encounters visitors will come to the museum [as well],” Looy said.

The more visitors who stick around for both attractions, the more money will find its way into the pockets of local businesses, they said.

Rejuvenating A Community

The ministry group plans on hiring locally for the nearly 900 full- and part-time jobs it needs to fill at Ark Encounter, once all phases are completed. The ark alone will establish 200-250 jobs inside the park, Zovath said, each averaging a $34,000 annual salary.

The Troyer Group, handling the construction and contracts, plans to use as many local companies and locally manufactured products as possible in order to maximize efficiency, while enhancing the local economy, said Zovath.

“We want to see the whole community grow and blossom,” he said. “We want to see Williamstown become the new Mason [Ohio] of Northern Kentucky.”

He predicted the region should also see thousands of job opportunities as a result of a revitalizing economy with hotels, restaurants and shops.  

“The city will see tens of millions of dollars on sales and income tax,” Zovath said.

“I’m really excited about the positive impact on Williamstown. They’re struggling with unemployment—it’s a beautiful, quaint city,'' he said. "This will give them a reason to stay, live and work there.”

The state will garnish approximately $2.5 million in sales tax as well, for the construction and an additional $2.5 million in sales tax during the park’s first year, Zovath said. After its opening year, however, Kentucky will offset that expense with tax breaks to the ministry, including incentives and rebates on future sales tax.

From Old Testament To New Testament, What’s Coming Next…

By 2028, all phases are expected to be completed at the park. 

The next four phases in the park’s projections will be based on how much money Answers in Genesis can raise after its initial opening—but Zovath said Phase II will likely be the Walled City, costing an estimated $9 million.

Over the next 10 years, Ark Encounter will add more Biblical-themed education and entertainment, based on the timeline of the Old Testament to the New Testament, including:

THE WALLED CITY - Likely to be Phase II at Ark Encounter, The Walled City will feature shops, restaurants and venues that bring to life the city and times in which the Bible said Noah lived. Depicting the pre-flood lifestyle of the people of Noah’s day, the planned 14-acre area is the entry point to the facility for all guests and becomes its central gathering point.

TOWER OF BABEL - Over 100 feet tall, this structure will depict what the the Bible said the Tower of Babel may have looked like. Guests enter a themed interior, leading them into a 500-seat special effects theater presentation of “Who is God?”

FIRST CENTURY VILLAGE - Guests may experience a ‘typical’ village that would have been found in the North Galilee area of Israel, where according to the Bible Jesus conducted the majority of his ministry, said Answers of Genesis. It will be complete with period-costumed villagers, houses, a synagogue, a sheepfold, an olive press building, watchtowers, terraced farming and a first-century dining facility.

JOURNEY THROUGH BIBLICAL HISTORY - Visitors may take a journey down a replica of the Nile River, winding through scenes from Old Testament history—experiencing special effects. 

Other attractions are expected to include:

  • 850-seat performing arts theater
  • 3,200-seat outdoor amphitheater
  • Children’s area with bridge nets, climbing areas, slides, and zip lines, it has an indoor and outdoor discovery center
  • The Aviary, a bird sanctuary
  • Noah’s animals

For more stories by Jessica Noll, go to www.wcpo.com/noll. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaWCPO.

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