Is their relationship with Metro Parks too cozy for wildlife’s comfort?
Scenes of Thrive businesses

Thrive Companies is cleaning up brownfields and building mixed-used developments in Columbus like no other developer in the city’s history. They’ve completed more brownfield projects than any developer in Ohio, transforming Italian Village, Grandview, Franklinton, and Weinland Park. A massive Thrive development visible from 670 West, for instance, is emerging in Italian Village at the former stie of the Jeffrey Mining Company.

“Thrive Companies remediates forgotten land in Columbus, creating intentional communities from previously inactivated spaces,” states their website.

Thrive’s history in Columbus goes back decades and is currently led by third generation Mark and Eric Wagenbrenner. According to the news site Construction Today, “In the early 2000s, Mark and Eric Wagenbrenner sought to pursue their own path, and launched Wagenbrenner Development (renamed Thrive Companies). Together, the brothers decided to strategically tackle large, complex brownfield projects, and they quickly amassed a sizeable land position in the Columbus market.”

Thrive develops “its sites as so-called ‘urban resorts,’” stated Construction Today. “Thrive’s focus is on amenities, including central greens, a Thrive-owned and operated wellness center, coffee shops and bars, and programming/events.”

Coincidentally, Columbus’s affordable housing crisis reared its ugly head during the same time Mark and Eric Wagenbrenner (pictured above) became Columbus’s premiere developer. The brother’s rise propelled by Ohio brownfield grants and City officials handing out tax abatements and tax increment financing (TIFs) like Halloween candy.

“The only affordable housing they will claim will be the set aside units they must provide in return for their 15-year 100 percent tax abated apartments at 80 percent and 100 percent AMI (Area Median Income),” said Mayoral candidate Joe Motil. “Which is now roughly $53,000 and $66,000 income levels. I don’t believe they have ever built any truly affordable housing projects. Ginther’s main priority is taking care of the rich on the backs of the poor. Developers, corporations and the wealthy don’t pay their fair of property taxes.”

To drive away from downtown on North Fourth Street past the former Wonder Bread factory (now Wonder Bread Lofts) is to witness the growth of one of the Midwest’s last great boomtowns. The push for more density and walkable neighborhoods is on. But whether more density equates to more affordable housing has yet to materialize. So far, increased density in Columbus sure looks like it is spiking the local market rate.

More recently, Thrive has shown fangs and salivated for some of Central Ohio’s greener spaces. Its remediation of several dormant mining quarries in Grandview resulted in Quarry Trails, which as many know, is a hybrid of sorts. It is both mixed-use and a Metro Park.

Fans of the Metro Parks say they were promised a world-class park in the heart of Central Ohio. Instead, some fans believe they were hoodwinked. The park is more “Easton West” than a Metro Park, they’ve told us.

Metro Park systems and mixed-use developers should never be joined at the hip, but here in Central Ohio such a relationship is playing out in front of the community with the advent of Quarry Trails and RAPID 5 or “Rivers and Parks Imagination Design.” This massive private and public “vision,” not a plan yet, wants to remake Central Ohio’s five major waterways: The Big Darby, the Scioto River, the Olentangy River, Alum Creek and the Big Walnut.

Naturalist Don Kloss, also a longtime Metro Parks volunteer, believes Quarry Trails is a prototype for RAPID 5, and has concerns many local Metro Parks will end up the same. How much Thrive paid for the Quarry Trails brownfield is a complicated and convoluted challenge, but Kloss has taken it upon himself to figure out what happened. The Free Press asked Thrive Companies for a response to this story but have yet to hear back.

“My instinct is telling me,” says Kloss, “is that Thrive bamboozled their way into making a shit ton of money off of this without having to put a ton of money into it.”

Kloss’s research shows this: Thrive Companies, through one of their subsidiaries (Marble Cliff LLC), purchased the brownfield from the mining company for $145,000. Thrive then sold Metro Parks 338 acres for $7.5 million. The City gave Thrive a 75percent annual tax abatement for ten years on office space and a 15-year 100percent tax abatement for homes. Estimated home sales at Quarry Trails are between $300,000 and $6 million. Kloss believes Thrive’s profit for this development will eventually end up around $15 million.

Earlier this year, the Wagenbrenner brothers’ relationship with Metro Parks – more specifically Metro Parks’ director Tim Moloney – came to light in a Dispatch article. For reasons not entirely clear, Metro Parks owns a 7,500 square foot mansion in Hocking Hills, and Metro Parks had leased the home to Mark Wagenbrenner for $1 a day.

“They were given a really good deal on this,” says Kloss. “And the thing is, part of Wagenbrenner’s responsibility on this was to pay the property taxes as part of the lease. Well, the property taxes were something like $38,000, but Wagenbrenner didn’t pay it. And when it became a problem with local government, Metro Parks paid it for him.”

Not long after this, the Wagenbrenners’ donated $1 million to RAPID 5.

“When that story broke, Wagenbrenner, I feel, was like, ‘Oh shit, I gotta cover up my dog poop,’” says Kloss. “So, he turned around and re-paid Metro Parks for those property taxes, and then right after that, donated the $1 million to RAPID5. Which to me looked like, ‘Oh okay, I’m sorry, I covered up my dog shit, here’s a million dollars for you.’”

Mayoral candidate Motil says Quarry Trails is no public park. It is an “amenity” for the rich.

“Taxpayers have shoveled out $15 million towards the Quarry Trails Park. Developers, corporations and the wealthy don’t pay their fair of property taxes,” says Motil. “And Wagenbrenner and Ginther’s other developer friends want to destroy open green space for the sake of economic development with their environmental killing RAPID 5 plan. So how does Ginther expect to increase tree canopy when he wants to destroy trees to build playgrounds for the rich? And why does a developer who specializes in developing brownfields want to destroy environmentally sensitive areas and nearby river corridors for the sake of profit?”