MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Looking for some thrills? How about taking a rollercoaster ride at an amusement park called Bible Park USA? Developers in Rutherford County, Tennessee, are trying to build the country's largest Bible-theme park. Not everyone is thrilled. NPR's Audie Cornish reports.
AUDIE CORNISH: First off, developer Armon Bar-Tur knows what you are thinking when you hear Bible Park USA.
Mr. ARMON BAR-TUR (Developer, Bible Park USA): Commercializing, and tacky, and it being a Six Flags over Jesus.
CORNISH: But that's not what he's going for. Unlike smaller religious attractions, Bar-Tur says his park would be successful because it is about history, not ministry.
Mr. BAR-TUR: There's a lot of people that would like to go on a trip to the Holy Lands, but only a small percentage do, and that's because of time, money and fear. The idea is that people can come to the park, and see a lot of similar ideas, and recreations that you would see.
CORNISH: So instead of roller coasters think of actors working in a Galilean village. Instead of a water slide, imagine an indoor exhibit on the parting of the Red Sea with water shooting into the air and the booming voice of Moses reigning down. Bar-Tur wants to turn 280 acres of Tennessee farm land into a 200 million dollar theme park promising 125 million in tax revenue over the next 30 years. And if all those numbers make your head spin, you're not the only one.
Mr. SCOTT YAEGER (Farmer): This man showed up, gave us this great idea that we never thought of, and never really had a need for. And all of a sudden, in a little bit of a down year where we're looking for a little bit of revenue in the county, everybody sees this as a panasthea (ph).
CORNISH: That's Scott Yaeger. He's standing across from the rolling green fields slated for development with a handful of folks who oppose the park. They're worried about traffic,and noise, and water use, the typical not-in-my-backyard kind of stuff. But frankly, Yaeger and others don't believe the park's going pull in the 1.5 million people annually that the developer says it will. Opponent Brandon Whitt farms part of the land in question.
Mr. BRANDON WHITT (Farmer): If the people here in the so-called Bible Belt don't want to go visit the park, or think they might visit once and then never return, what's going to bring the people in from outside that realm of the Bible Belt to make it an even bigger draw?
CORNISH: Plus the whole idea of nondenominational, nonreligious attraction just doesn't sit well with Whitt. He says he's got a problem with people making money off the Bible. But Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess disagrees.
Mayor ERNEST BURGESS (Mayor, Rutherford County): Do I want to go down to all the Christian book stores and say, you don't have a right to sell your products? It's the same kind of approach, and I just really don't think we need to go there.
CORNISH: Burgess oversees a county that was once rural but these days housing developments are the fastest growing crops. The park would be financed in part by county backed bonds, and deferred taxes in return for future revenues generated by the park. Money, Burgess and others, say the county badly needs. It's why long time residents like Donald McDonald support the development.
Mr. DONALD MCDONALD (Resident): We appreciate all you folks coming out tonight. The purpose of this meeting is to inform about the good points of the park. We've had plenty of the bad points.
CORNISH: Outside the meeting, resident Helen Campbell says it's a shame the Bible Park has been so divisive in a mostly Christian community. She'd be happy to take her kids to the park. And Campbell says she doesn't believe people who say the developer is trying to pull a fast one.
Ms. HELEN CAMPBELL (Resident): You know you have these outsiders coming in, and they just are here to make their money. And they don't know what they're doing. They're coming in to this small community and you know, and I really hate to hear that because we're not a small community anymore, and we're growing very quickly. And I think that this is a wonderful opportunity.
CORNISH: Some people are moving toward Campbell's way of thinking. More than 100 people attended the theme park's job fair this month, and the project isn't even approved yet. That decision comes this week when the Rutherford County Commission is said to vote on Bible Park USA. Audie Cornish, NPR News, Nashville.
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