Something Stinks: Money in Local Politics

Why is money in local politics such a bad thing? People work hard to grow a successful business, so shouldn’t they be allowed to invest some of that money into the campaign of a candidate they support. The problem is that money will always have strings attached. For example, Paul Thrift has made over $200,000 worth of political contributions in the past 15 years, and now his company has been chosen by local leaders to apply for $10 million dollars worth of READI grant money, including COVID relief funds, to develop luxury apartments on the east side of Terre Haute. Let’s take a look at how that process developed and who else benefited locally.

First, we’ll start with the decision makers in the formulation of the READI grant application, which can be found under the “Stakeholders & Execution” section of the application starting on page 24. You’ve got your usual suspects, city and county leaders from each of the six regions represented. Then, you’ve got “Regional Organization Leaders.” folks from local Chambers of Commerce, United Way, etc. But one name that stands out as slightly unusual is Greg Goode, serving as President of the Wabash River RDA. If you don’t know Greg he was ISU’s director of government relations who, along with former ISU president Dan Bradley, criticized Terre Haute’s Capital Improvement Board, and then they both resigned/retired within a year.

Greg took a job out west, but was only gone for a year, then returned to his previous position at ISU and was appointed by the mayor to the Economic Development Commission. Along with government and regional leaders, the READI application also partnered with private sector leaders including RJL solutions (previously owned by Greg Gibson), Watermark Residential (owned by Thompson-Thrift), and the Dora Hospitality Group, the same company that partnered with Greg Gibson and Thompson-Thrift to build the Hilton Garden Inn downtown. At this point we should already have concerns that the major private sector partners are real estate developers and construction companies that have been involved in “leapfrog development” for decades.

Now let’s look at the amount of money that was allocated to some of these projects (you can find the entire list on pages 26-29 of the application). All six counties made requests to fund 42 projects totaling approximately $73.9 million dollars. The two projects involving Thompson-Thrift’s luxury apartments on the east side, and a parking garage for a new Courtyard + Residence Inn hotel downtown, totaled $22 million, over 30% of the entire regions grant budget. Add to this a $13 million dollar request for a sports complex and water park, including a new baseball field for the Terre Haute Rex team, and 3 mostly private projects in Vigo County will have received almost 50% of the regional funding. It is important to remember however that this is nothing new, and that our local media outlets have been complicit in reporting on these projects in ways that make it sound like most of the money is going to education, libraries, and museums.

If you read the report, you might notice that the company chosen to develop the luxury apartments is named “Watermark Residential.” For some time Thompson-Thrift has been developing luxury condos around the country under the Watermark Residential brand. The month before this report was released, however, Thompson Thrift decided to change the name of their “Watermark Residential” brand to “Thompson Thrift Residential,” but the name was left Watermark in the report. And a month later they released a statement that they were closing their Watermark Multifamily Development Fund at $253 million dollars. So, a company that has just secured a quarter of a billion dollars worth of funding was chosen to receive 14% of the entire regions READI funds.

Eric Cook: Garmong Business Developer, Brad Anderson: Vigo County Commissioner, Josh Brackall Garmong Safety Director

As was mentioned, this is nothing new in our community. For years the Vigo County Commissioners have held a golf outing where executives from local construction companies, including Garmong Construction, would come golf and make large donations, and then the donations would be recorded on campaign finance reports as “commissioner golf outing.” This is illegal of course, but the local institutions tasked with overseeing this process, the County Clerk’s office formally and local journalists informally, never, to my knowledge, raised any alarms. Which is also concerning because Anderson’s campaign would often make donations to Brad Newman’s campaign for County Clerk. With this being said it is beneficial to our community that our current commissioners have agreed to end commissioner golf outings as a method of fundraising.

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