Watch an NBC4 report from Feb. 22, 2018, when the City of Columbus ordered the Fort Rapids Indoor Waterpark Resort to close

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A developer wants to turn the former Fort Rapids Indoor Waterpark Resort on the east side of Columbus into micro-apartments for workforce housing. But the project may never happen.

California real estate investor Maxwell Drever offered to buy the dilapidated 12-story hotel and waterpark in 2021, about five years after the City of Columbus ordered the resort to close after a history of health and safety complaints. The resort, located at 4560 Hilton Corporate Drive, hasn’t reopened.

Drever’s dream to revamp the lifeless hotel could be shattered by the building’s current owner, Jeff Oh Kern, whose unrelenting failure to clean up the security-less, 16-acre site has left developers, the City of Columbus, a real estate agent, and other stakeholders embattled in Franklin County courtrooms for three years and counting. 

“We’re fearful it’s going to be condemned and knocked down,” Drever, 82, said.

A photo of the former 12-story Fort Rapids Indoor Waterpark Resort with ice forming on the side of its building
The former Fort Rapids Indoor Waterpark Resort on the East Side of Columbus suffered a burst water pipe in 2018, sending millions of gallons of water out of its upper windows and requiring the help of the Columbus Division of Fire. (NBC4 Photo)

Kern, of Los Angeles, bought the blighted resort for $2.5 million at an auction in 2017, a year after it was condemned by the city, according to Dan Sheeran, a Columbus real estate agent with NAI Ohio Equities who has been working to sell the property to new ownership since 2018.

Sheeran said Kern’s vision to transform the site into a part-hotel, part-soccer facility quickly faded when he learned the land next door – which he intended to buy – was already under contract with and later bought by Mount Carmel Health System.

At that point, the out-of-state investor lost interest in revamping the resort “because his dream was not really going to happen,” Sheeran said.

Kern gave up and transferred ownership of the site to fellow California investor Juzi Cui, but backpedaled on that plan when Cui died without a will in 2019, Sheeran said. He successfully moved a Franklin County probate court to restore his ownership status and appoint him as beneficiary of Cui’s estate.

Since then, Kern has let the abandoned Fort Rapids resort fall into a state of disrepair, racking up code violation after code violation from the City of Columbus while threatening to sue anyone who sells the property out of his hands. In 2018, millions of gallons of water poured out of the hotel’s windows after a pipe burst on its upper floor.

Watch an NBC4 report from Jan. 3, 2018, when a water pipe burst at the former Fort Rapids Indoor Waterpark Resort

City Attorney Zach Klein in August 2021 declared the site a nuisance over Kern’s failure to get it into compliance and secure the proper permits for renovation, Pete Shipley, a spokesperson for the city attorney’s office, said. A year later, the work still wasn’t finished. Klein ordered Kern in contempt of court and issued a $1,000 fine per day until he brought it into compliance.

“Compliance with health, safety and fire codes isn’t optional, it’s essential to protect public safety—regardless of whether the property you own is in use to the general public,” Klein said at the time.

To make matters worse, Sheeran said, the court-ordered security detail Kern agreed to bankroll in 2022 walked off the job in late February because they weren’t getting paid, leaving the 16-acre site, its 330 hotel rooms and 60,000-square-foot waterpark exposed to the elements – including the apparent partiers who had already entered the building, Sheeran said.

“The estate is broke, and Jeff won’t pay anything,” he said. “I’m not even sure why the electricity we have – and by electricity I mean four or five outlets – is still on.”

Kern’s financial advisor estimated it would cost nearly $1.3 million to fix up the property – about a quarter of the $4.2 million value the Franklin County Auditor appraised the resort at in 2020, according to county court filings.

In 2021, Drever stepped in with an offer to flip the former resort into $800/month micro-apartments for low-income, working families in Columbus. Drever’s proposal, currently the No. 1 choice for Sheeran’s real estate firm, mirrors similar workforce housing developments that his Bay Area company Drever Capital Management have transformed from “broken hotels” in other U.S. states. 

Over the course of 50 years, the company has acquired more than 47,000 units for workforce housing, according to its website. In July, it opened The Penleigh-Live Oak, a 300-unit complex in Branson, Missouri, that features a lounge, fitness center, on-site laundry facilities, a playground and pool. 

Through partnerships with about 30 civic- and faith-based organizations in the area, Drever said residents at the Branson complex can access perks like on-site childcare, provided by the local Boys and Girls Club. For single-mother residents, the area Catholic Charities agreed to provide a month to a year’s worth of free rent, which normally costs around $800 a month.

“This is in our wheelhouse, providing housing for the most in need,” Drever said. “We can do the same in Columbus.”

But, like the slew of developers who came before him, Drever’s offer remains in limbo as Kern’s refusal to sell and the pending litigation that remains in three Franklin County courts – probate, environmental and common pleas – has delayed any opportunity to restore the blighted building.

It remains unclear what Kern intends to do with the property. His defense attorney declined to comment.

Sheeran said he’d like to see both the city and the courts hold Kern’s feet closer to the fire in forcing the absent owner to make a move, especially as Drever’s proposal, if able to move forward, would be the first new housing project on Hamilton Road in about 30 years. “They won’t draw a line in the sand,” he said.

“There’s a high school right across the street from us,” Sheeran said. “We have school-aged young children [at Arts and College Preparatory Academy] exposed to the derelict people that have now inhabited the building.”

Like it did with the troubled apartment complex Latitude Five25 in October, Sheeran said he wants Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein’s office to say, “We’re going to order the sale of this building.” As for the pending litigation, Sheeran said judges keep granting Kern continuances.

“All three of these courts just keep passing the ball to each other, and in the meantime, nothing gets done,” he said.

It’s not the first time Kern has left a building to decay.

In 2015, he bought a Holiday Inn hotel on an eight-acre site at one of the busiest intersections in Midland, Michigan, located about 300 miles northwest of Columbus. The Holiday Inn franchise – a premier hotel in its heyday – was once considered a staple in the community, Midland City Attorney Jim Branson said.

But once Kern signed his name on the dotted line to acquire it, Branson said the hotel’s condition “completely went downhill,” forcing the City of Midland to condemn it in 2018. Three years later, the dilapidated hotel faced the wrath of a bulldozer.

Though the building no longer exists, Branson said the clean-up of the eight-acre site “is nowhere near being done.” Kern is still on the hook for bringing the demolition site littered with asphalt, concrete and footings into compliance.

“It’s astounding how the Fort Rapids project is basically paralleling ours,” Branson said.

Kern is expected to appear for a jury trial in Michigan later this month, where he faces jail time for misdemeanor charges related to non-compliance of the former hotel, Branson said. He also owes an estimated $1.5 million in fines, liens and taxes.

“How someone can keep this property and still have the amount that is owed, well, that is up to Mr. Kern,” Branson said. “But it’s not going to be a blight on our community, and we are not letting up on it ‘til it’s cleaned up.”

Kern, who is originally from South Korea, requires an interpreter during his court hearings in Michigan, Branson said. Despite his history of nonpayment, Branson said Kern has been respectful though out the legal process.

To expedite the process, Drever said Branson advised him to ask the Franklin County court to grant a receiver to take possession of the property and prepare it for sale. The City Attorney’s office has also requested a court-appointed receiver, and Drever said he’s eyeing for his son and business partner, Galen Drever, to fill that role.

Shipley said the first step in that process is to conduct an interior inspection of the property to assess its condition, and the City Attorney’s office is awaiting a court’s approval of its request to do so.

“Ultimately, the City would like to see the property returned to productive use, and if there is any legitimate role the City Attorney’s Office can play in accomplishing this goal, we will do so,” Shipley said in a statement.

Like in Midland, Drever said his biggest fear is that the former resort will continue down a path of destruction, forcing the city to tear it down. He said he’s already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into the project – and plans to invest millions more in redevelopment costs if he acquires the site.

“We could house so many families in this place,” Branson said, “and it’s a shame that anybody who comes west to Columbus, the first thing they see is this 1970s-era hotel that’s basically deteriorating.”