WILLIAMSTOWN, Ky. – In a rolling Kentucky pasture, the first few wooden ribs of a giant Noah's ark tourist attraction have begun to sprout up.
For now, there's only a foundation, some concrete pillars and the ribs. But the Christian ministry building the ark says the public will be awe-struck by the size of the 510-foot-long ship when it's finished next year.
"This is going to be huge attraction just for the structure itself," said Ken Ham, founder of the Kentucky-based group, Answers in Genesis.
On Thursday, journalists were allowed to tour the site for the first time — following a hard rainfall, as it turned out.
The religious theme park project that was announced nearly five years ago is still afloat, after hitting a stretch of rough waters. The ministry had to break the project into phases after private funding stalled a few years ago due to a soft economy. The ark is the first phase, and plans for other attractions at the site were put on hold.
Answers in Genesis says it will pour nearly $90 million of private donations and bond funding into the attraction, which will be called the Ark Encounter. So far, Ham said, about $70 million has been raised.
The Christian group says it has researched the Noah story to determine the size of the boat. In the Bible account, the ark was built by Noah to carry pairs of all the earth's animals as the world was destroyed by a flood.
"Most people don't really understand the size of the ark, and we're going to answer questions like, how could he fit all the animals on board," Ham said at the construction site Thursday.
Ham's ministry opened the Creation Museum in 2007 a few miles from here. It has drawn criticism from science educators for exhibits that challenge evolution and promote a view that the earth is about 6,000 years old.
TV star and educator Bill Nye, who suggests the tourist-friendly ark could divert young people away from science, debated Ham on evolution at a widely-seen event at the Creation Museum last year. Nye said if Noah's ark had actually been built, it would have been destroyed by the sea.
The big boat project took another hit last year when the state of Kentucky withdrew a tourism sales tax incentive that would have meant about $18 million for the attraction after it is up and running.
State officials said in December that tax incentives shouldn't be used to "fund religious indoctrination." Answers in Genesis disagreed and filed a federal lawsuit to get back into the incentive program, saying they should not be excluded because of their religious beliefs. The state has asked a judge to dismiss the suit, and a hearing is scheduled for next week.
Ham said the ark attraction is meant to reach more people "with God's word."
"But we're not forcing people to come here, they come of their own free will," Ham said. "And when they come here and go through, we're not going to be forcing them to believe our message, we don't do that. They're going to have a great experience regardless of whether they agree with us or not."