(CNN)A $100 million representation of Noah’s Ark opened to ticket holders Thursday in Williamstown, Kentucky, but critics say the religious enterprise shouldn’t have received government tax breaks.
The massive exhibit, claimed to be the largest timber frame structure in the world, sits on the grounds of a Christian theme park, Ark Encounter, a for-profit enterprise founded by Ken Ham. He said the park is an evangelical tool aimed at teaching creationism, a literal interpretation of the Bible’s Book of Genesis.
“I find some of the aggressive secularists try to shut down people talking about the bible,” Ham said. “So for us it’s ‘How can we get a message out there about the Bible?'”
The ark is 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 51 feet high, constructed based on dimensions derived from scripture, Ham said. Its three decks span more than 120,000 square feet.
“It is much more than you can ever imagine,” Ham said. “When you see the architectural algorithms you need, engineering diagrams … and all the supporters, thousands upon thousands of supporters who financially made this possible … I mean it’s amazing.”
By financial supporters, Ham means investors, donors, as well as the state of Kentucky, Grant County, and the city of Williamstown, all of which helped launch the ark project. According to Ham, $62 million was raised from investors who bought Williamstown’s unrated municipal bonds, and about $38 million came from donors.
The city of Williamstown sold approximately 100 acres of land to the Grant County Joint Local Industrial Development Authority for $10. The land, now part of the park, was subsequently purchased by Ark Encounter as part of a 318-acre sale. The city created a special tax district to forgive 75% of Ark Encounter’s property taxes over 30 years.
Ark Encounter is also poised to tap $18.25 million in sales tax rebates over 10 years, granted by the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism. It will collect $2 per every $100 paid to Ark Encounter employees, in an effort to repay the bonds.
Consultants hired by Ark Encounter’s nonprofit parent, Answers in Genesis, project the park will generate 20,000 jobs in the area and $4 billion in tourism revenue, when combined with Ham’s already established Creation Museum. The park itself has created about 350 jobs so far, Ham said.
Critics object to Ark Encounter, a religious organization, availing itself of government breaks while excluding prospective hires based on religion. As a condition of employment, all Ark Encounter applicants must sign a statement of faith, attesting to the creationist vision and disavowing homosexuality, same-sex marriage and premarital sex.
The Rev. Bob Fox, head pastor at Faith Baptist Church in Georgetown, Kentucky, said the ark project blurs the line between church and state.
“I have a great deal of difficulty when the state is asked to promote a religious position and through funding. So my concern is that when the state offers tax incentives to what is essentially a religious enterprise, they are promoting that religious group.”
A group called Reason Advocates announced online it was planning to protest the park, which it called “state-funded religious extremism” on a blog.
“People say all sorts of things, but the bottom line is we have to look at the law and what the law states and what the Constitution of America states, and this has nothing to do with the government supporting any religion,” Ham said. “The government offers this tax incentive to the Bourbon Museum, the Speedway, and we have every right to partake in it, too. It’s a performance based rebate on sales tax, it’s not the government giving you a grant.”
Ham estimated between 50 and 70 protesters staked out along the ark’s I-75 exit ramp on opening day, and he said visitors numbered in the thousands.
In addition to the ark exhibit, the park features a petting zoo, zip lines, live entertainment, a 900-seat auditorium and a 1,500-seat restaurant.
Noah’s Ark opens at Kentucky theme park