By Steve Bittenbender
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Reuters) - A controversial Noah's Ark-themed amusement park in Kentucky will open on July 7, 2016, the park's founder said on Thursday.
Currently under construction in Williamstown, northern Kentucky, Ark Encounter will include a full-sized wooden replica of the ship from the Biblical story of Noah and the great flood.
Ken Ham, president and chief executive of Answers in Genesis, the Christian organization behind the project, announced the opening date at a press conference and said the park should attract at least 1.4 million people annually.
"It'll certainly be one of the biggest Christian attractions in the world," he said from the site of the park.
In the summer of 2014, Kentucky officials awarded the park’s developers tax incentives, potentially worth more than $18 million over 10 years. However, state officials in December pulled the credits after developers said they would only hire workers who shared their fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
Ark Encounter officials then sued the state in federal court in February to get the incentives reinstated.
The opening date for the park was based on a verse from the book of Genesis - the seventh verse of the seventh chapter details when Noah and his family entered the ark, Ham said.
Because of the perceived high interest in the park, he said attendance will be limited for the first 40 days and nights, tying the opening again to the Noah story, Ham said. Those tickets will be available for purchase in January through an online reservation system.
Answers in Genesis also runs the Creation Museum, 40 miles north in Petersburg, just outside of Cincinnati. It is an organization that believes the world is about 6,000 years old and events in the Bible, such as the creation of the Earth in six days, happened as they were written.
Scientists have calculated the earth is over 4 billion years old, based on carbon dating of rocks and other research.
“We make no apology about our Christian message,” Ham said in a post on the organization's website last week. “We have never hidden the fact that our purpose is to spread the truth of God’s Word and its life-changing gospel message.”
Previously, officials said the Ark would be part of a $73 million initial phase of the 800-acre park, which would later add other biblically themed attractions. However, Ham in his online statement said the cost of the Ark structure is $29.5 million and the park needs another $6.5 million to complete it.
At Thursday's press conference, Ham said the Ark section will include a restaurant, theater and petting zoo.
(Reporting by Steve Bittenbender, Editing By Ben Klayman and Andrew Hay)