RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Kentucky, there's a new replica of Noah's Ark. It's based on specs from the Book of Genesis. It cost $100 million and is expected to draw up to 2 million visitors a year. That's the hope, anyway, for a region that's desperate for an economic boost. NPR's Ashley Westerman reports.
ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: The ark is a sight to behold. Sitting in a field just off I-75, south of Cincinnati, it's seven stories high and dominates the landscape.
MARK LOOEY: The Bible indicates the original ark was three hundred cubits. That calculates, in modern day terms, to 510 feet long.
WESTERMAN: That's Mark Looey, a co-founder of Answers in Genesis, the Christian ministry that built this thing. They're the group that opened the Creation Museum a few years ago, promoting a literal interpretation of the Bible and other teachings - that planet Earth is only 6000 years old, that man lived alongside dinosaurs. With the attraction set to open this Thursday, construction crews are rushing around, putting the final touches on exhibits so sophisticated you might think you're at Disney World.
LOOEY: By the way, no live animals in the ark. We have a zoo behind the ark here. That's where...
WESTERMAN: Looey says they've already hired over 300 staff, and hundreds more jobs are on the way when other phases are completed. It's no surprise that the small town just across the interstate is excited. Williamstown, Ky., has a population of about 4000. It's a middle-class bedroom community, right between Cincinnati and Lexington. Mayor Rick Skinner says they've already upgraded their electricity and built a new water treatment plant. And downtown...
RICK SKINNER: These next two buildings there have also sold.
WESTERMAN: Today, Main Street is lined with old brick storefronts, many of them still vacant.
BILL ADKINS: When the recession hit, it hit hard.
WESTERMAN: Local lawyer Bill Adkins remembers sitting in foreclosure settlements almost every week. What Answers in Genesis calls an independent study puts the ark's economic impact at $4 billion over the next decade. Adkins is skeptical.
ADKINS: We've not seen the hotels. We've not seen the restaurants coming in to support this attraction. I think a lot of people are waiting to invest because they want to see if - after the flash and bang of the opening, what happens next.
WESTERMAN: Answers in Genesis points to the success of the Creation Museum as proof of the ark's potential. And then there are the controversies around the project, provoking debate over separation of church and state. Adkins is uncomfortable with the tourism tax rebates the ministry is getting from the state that are worth up to $18 million. And it also just doesn't sit well with him that job applicants must adhere to the ministry's rigid moral code and belief system.
ADKINS: That one would have to subjugate their own beliefs to comply with that of an employer, that seems very intrusive and oppressive to me.
WESTERMAN: But a federal judge earlier this year ruled that Answers in Genesis, as a religious group, has a right to restrict their hiring. Jay Novarra is completely opposed. She's especially irked at local leaders. Along with free land, Williamstown also gave Answers in Genesis $62 million in bonds. The ministry says the town will not be on the hook for those. As a farmer, Novarra is worried about the price of water going up since the town is also providing water to the ark.
JAY NOVARRA: We do have a lot of people who make a living farming. And you start adding to the price we have to pay to raise our food, then you're definitely impacting farmers. And I have to ask myself, what is that farmer getting out of it?
WESTERMAN: I asked Mayor Rick Skinner if there's a contingency plan.
SKINNER: No, we don't have a contingency.
WESTERMAN: Putting all your eggs in one basket?
SKINNER: Yes, we did (laughter).
WESTERMAN: Kind of like Noah. Ashley Westerman, NPR News, Williamstown, Ky.
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