A Bible-belt state hoping to land a biblical theme park that includes a full-size replica of Noah's Ark approved tax incentives Thursday to help pay for it.
The Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority voted unanimously to grant more than $40 million in tax rebates for the $172 million project that's otherwise being financed by a group of unidentified private investors.
"This was the last real hurdle for us as far as I'm concerned," said Mike Zovath, co-founder of the Answers in Genesis ministry that previously built the Creation Museum in Kentucky.
The latest project would will include a replica of the Tower of Babel, a first century village, theaters, lecture halls, retail shops, restaurants, a petting zoo and live animal shows featuring giraffes and elephants.
Zovath said he expects groundbreaking in August.
Rob Hunden, a consultant who reviewed the proposal for the Tourism Development and Finance Authority, said the project is expected to draw nearly 1.4 million visitors a year.
Gov. Steve Beshear has said he favors tax incentives for the ark park that is projected to create 600 to 700 full-time jobs and have an economic impact of more than $250 million in its first year of operation.
The mission of the project, Zovath said, is to lend credence to the biblical account of a catastrophic flood and to dispel doubts that Noah could have fit two of every kind of animal in an ark.
Investors, who have looked at sites across the country for the proposed theme park, settled on the Kentucky site that is within a day's drive of two-thirds of the nation's population.
However, the notion of providing such incentives for a project with a religious theme drew immediate opposition on grounds of church-state separation and raised the specter of protracted legal battles over the issue.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State executive director Barry W. Lynn criticized Kentucky's decision, saying the state "should not be promoting the spread of fundamentalist Christianity or any other religious viewpoint.
"Let these folks build their fundamentalist Disneyland without government help," he said.
The Creation Museum has shown that tourists will flock to biblical attractions. More than 1 million visitors have visited the creation museum since it opened more than 3 years ago.
Lynn complained Thursday that public officials in Kentucky are subsidizing fundamentalist religion at a time when they should be promoting modern science for Kentucky children.
"This misguided project deserves to sink," he said.
Zovath said the controversy generated by critics like Lynn has actually been good for the project.
"The more they try to paint us in a bad light, the more opportunities we have to explain the project," he said.