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Profits of Doom: How the politics of the Ark Park killed Kentucky Kingdom

by Staff

Louisville taxpayers and economic development officials miss the boat.

(Editor’s note: Brian Tucker of The Valley Report and Terry Boyd contributed to this post.)

Gov. Steve Beshear used to be an attorney, and crackin’ good one at that, from what we hear.

So, why does the Kentucky governor have so much trouble getting his proposals past that hoariest of all legal concepts, “the reasonable person test?”

Take for example the governor’s inerrant embrace of the Noah’s Ark theme park versus the cold shoulder he gave the resurrection, so to speak, of Kentucky Kingdom.

We’re reasonable people, and we are saying, “What the hell?”

We’re also capitalists, and we believe people of all faiths and creeds should build whatever sort of theme parks they want as long as they do it with their own money.

But the Solomonic decision before Beshear was a state-funded, overly optimistic religious boondoggle in the middle of nowhere that trumpets a nearly sadist biblical worldview versus a proven tourist attraction/economic development no-brainer in Kentucky’s most populous metroplex. (By the way, the state of Kentucky already owns most of Kentucky Kingdom.)

Could the choice of the Ark Experience be … politics?

A few months ago, Ed Hart, Kentucky Kingdom entrepreneur and the park’s original “baby daddy,” went to the state with a plan to reopen the regional amusement park, which Dallas-based Six Flags Inc. abandoned in a 2009 bankruptcy.

The ambitious plan included a little matter of the state guaranteeing $50 million in bond issues Hart says it will take to reopen Kentucky Kingdom.

What Hart got from legislators including Rep. Larry Clark, (Dem., Louisville), wasn’t just “no,” but “hell no.” The governor never weighed in publicly.

So, Hart is negotiating with Metro Mayor Greg Fischer on a more modest $20 million proposal.

Yet, last week, the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority voted unanimously to grant “Ark Encounter” more than $40 million in tax rebates.

According to its proponents, the $172 million Ark Encounter will rebuild Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel outside Williamstown, Ky. as part of a “theme park” to prove the inerrant truth of the Book of Genesis.

The Ark Encounter is projected to employ 700 workers and have a “net fiscal impact on the state” of between $64.6 million and $119 million over 10 years, according to proponents.

It’s being financed by a group of mystery investors who apparently overlap with investors in The Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky.

Yes, this is apples and oranges.

Hart is asking to deploy the full faith and credit of state government, or failing that, city government to raise a substantial amount of capital, money we wonder why he can’t raise privately.

On the other hand, there aren’t a lot of Ed Harts out there who can come in and get this park we taxpayers already own back up running again, producing tax revenue and jobs.

At its peak under Hart in 1998, Kentucky Kingdom drew more than 1.4 million visitors, with a substantial percent from outside Kentucky. It had about 100 full-time workers and 1,000 seasonal part-time kids.

Last July, Business First reporter John Karman quoted state and city officials saying Kentucky Kingdom produced about $1.2 million in annual revenue for the Kentucky State Fair Board, including rental payments and parking fees, and generated 10,000 hotel room nights each year.

The Ark deal doesn’t risk taxpayer money or the state’s credit rating up front. It just allows the Ark Encounter people to get a free ride on sales taxes over 10 years if they ever actually do get the massive number of people they predict.

(That said, state officials want to spend about $11 million to improve an interchange to the park off Interstate-75. )

The state was virtually guaranteed to make a profit off of its investment in Kentucky Kingdom, had it seen fit to do so. The state’s bet on Ark Encounter is a total gamble.

Which brings us to the biggest mystery of all: If the Ark Park is such a good deal, why didn’t any other state want it? Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio already turned down versions of the park, but not Kentucky. No sir.

What officials in other states probably considered first were facts: The Lexington-Herald has run several stories that should give Gov. Beshear an economic epiphany.

The Creation Museum, which was supposed to be this huge national draw, has had a total of 1 million attendees since 2007. So, that’s about 250,000 people per year, or about one and a half Derby Day crowds at Churchill Downs, not to mention 18 percent of Kentucky Kingdom’s traffic at its peak.

Ark Encounter officials predict 1.6 million visitors their first year. A miracle!

Of course, there’s more to this issue than finances and economic development.

Beshear doesn’t care about the numbers or Louisville. He cares how the Ark Experience plays in Owensboro, Somerset, Corbin, Covington and Pikeville.

Beshear is using the Ark deal to drive a wedge between David Williams’ religious base in eastern, northern and western Kentucky. We can hear the governor now: “Yeah, I know I have a big-city Jewish mayor (sort of) running with me, but I want to show you all with this Ark Park how I’m one of you.” (Wink, wink.)

As far as politics goes, it’s a pretty interesting development, one that could turn Beshear into a two-term governor. Louisville’s a gimme, so we’re not getting squat.

By appealing to the religious preferences of ultra-conservative voters outside the big metros, Beshear is vying to block any attempt by Williams to take those voters for granted. That forces Williams to put resources into courting voters who should already be firmly planted in his camp, and that wastes Williams’ time and money.

David Williams will now have to don the robes of Moses and say to Beshear: “Let my people go.”

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