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A Noah's Ark In Kentucky Encounters Controversy


A new theme park opens this week in Kentucky. The centerpiece is a life-sized Noah's Ark. The $100 million project, called the Ark Encounter, has been shrouded in controversy since it was announced six years ago. Here's Cheri Lawson of member station WEKU.

CHERI LAWSON, BYLINE: Midway between the rolling hills of Cincinnati and Lexington sits Williamstown, Ky. It's here where there's a massive timber-framed structure - Noah's Ark.

KEN HAM: It's going to be a world-class attraction. I believe it's going to be one of the greatest Christian outreaches of our era history. But you're going to get non-Christians as well as Christians coming. And the research shows that very, very clearly.

LAWSON: Ken Ham is CEO of Answers in Genesis and the man behind the nearby Creation Museum. It's been popular since it opened nine years ago despite its controversial claims - the world is 6,000 years old and dinosaurs roamed the Earth with humans. Now Ham has turned his attention to his latest creation.

HAM: Today, a lot of people just scoff at the idea that Noah could fit the animals on board or this could've really happened. This is going to help them see this could've been feasible. Maybe I should think about this.

LAWSON: Ham doesn't have to convince Williamstown resident Robin Doyle. Like some in this town of 4,000 she can't wait for the ark.

ROBIN DOYLE: I am so excited to see the Bible come to life. You know, in our lifetime, to be able to see that, I just think it's amazing.

LAWSON: The biblical boat has had its share of problems. Kentucky state officials originally promised $18 million in tax incentives but later withdrew that offer because the company requires employees to sign a statement of biblical faith. Answers in Genesis sued and won in what they called a victory for religious freedom. But the controversy continues for Kentuckians like Baptist minister Bob Fox.

BOB FOX: I oppose this on principle. In my tradition, the Baptist tradition, separation of church and state has always been an essential component.

LAWSON: Scientists have railed against the project. Geologist Dan Phelps is the president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society.

DAN PHELPS: It's reinforcing the stereotype of Kentucky as being very uber religious and anti-science and backwards.

LAWSON: The naysayers haven't stopped Ken Ham. He's used money from private donations and bonds to complete the $100 million Ark Encounter. The ark is based on dimensions in the Bible. It's 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and 51 feet high. The surrounding park includes a lake, zip lines and even a petting zoo. Ham says to get to the ark, visitors will ride a mile-long shuttle that travels across a valley and over a creek.

HAM: That's where they then leave the modern world, so to speak, and come up here and come into Noah's world.

LAWSON: Inside the ark, there are lifelike models of people and close to 100 sculpted animals, including dinosaurs. Wooden decks and ramps line the structure. There's even an animatronic Noah. Williamstown Mayor Rick Skinner is excited about the opening and dismisses the controversy.

RICK SKINNER: I don't think they're going to push religion down their throats. They will have a religious theme but they're not going to keep you there until you say you believe.

LAWSON: Park officials expect 2 million visitors the first year. And they hope to keep growing. They plan to add a walled city, a Tower of Babel and a Middle Eastern village. For NPR News, I'm Cheri Lawson in Williamstown, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.