POMONA — A festive ground breaking Wednesday was to have signaled the arrival of the city's most ambitious redevelopment project, the proposed $96-million Inland Pacific World Trade Center.
But, according to the developer and other knowledgeable sources, actions by mayoral candidate C. L. (Clay) Bryant caused potential financial backers to at least temporarily shy away, scuttling the scheduled ceremony.
Bryant, a leading critic of the proposed 14-story office tower, tried unsuccessfully last December to get police to arrest the mayor and three councilmen after they held what he said was a secret meeting at City Hall with a representative of Mitsubishi Trust and Banking Corp., which the developer hoped would finance the project.
Although city officials denied that the Sunday afternoon reception was secret or improper, the incident apparently so embarrassed the Japanese bankers that they backed away from the investment, according to the developer.
"It set us back," said H. Thomas Felvey, co-developer of the project. "All they know are Watergate events when it comes to politics."
Mayor G. Stanton Selby, an avid supporter of the trade center, agreed that Bryant's arrest attempt jeopardized plans for the project, which city officials have been trying to launch for 17 months.
"If that hadn't happened, the world trade center would have been all signed, sealed and delivered," said Selby, who lost his chance for a third term as mayor when Bryant and Councilwoman Donna Smith ousted him in a three-way race last month. "When the Japanese found out about this in Tokyo, that was the beginning of its downfall."
Officials at the Mitsubishi branch in New York did not return phone calls from The Times.
Bryant, who will vie with Smith in an April 21 runoff, said he was pleased to hear that he had rattled the bankers, but contended that he was being blamed for what he said was a more fundamental breakdown in the negotiations.
"I'd be flattered to be the one who killed that stupid project," Bryant said. "But it's much more than that. The project won't stand on its own merits and they're looking for a goat."
After nearly a year of uncertainty, Felvey had announced last fall that the financing was in place and ground would be broken in January, 1987. When that failed to occur, the ground-breaking ceremony was postponed to April 1.
Felvey, however, said he had virtually closed the deal with Mitsubishi when Bryant disrupted the negotiations in December. He predicted last week that an agreement would be signed with the Japanese bank within a month.
"In a little more than three or four weeks, you're going to see some dirt moving," said Felvey, who is promoting the project along with Birtcher, an Orange County development firm. "We simply told (Mitsubishi) the truth, that no laws were broken . . . and they appear to be satisfied."
But some city officials, while insisting that the project is still alive, say that the prospect of either Bryant or Smith as mayor has dampened their optimism.
Bryant has called the proposed trade center an "albatross." Smith has called herself a "cautious" supporter of the project.
"I think the election may have an effect on the project," said Sanford A. Sorensen, director of community development for the city. "I think the Japanese banks would be more inclined to want a 5-0 vote (from the council) before they support it."
Selby, who has hailed the project as perhaps the most significant development in the city's 99-year history, said he was extremely disappointed by the recent turn of events.
"(The trade center) may still come to be, but I'm not very optimistic," Selby said. "They're not going to put a lot of money into the city if they're not sure of the direction here."
Smith, who has objected to the implication that she does not favor the project, said she simply has concerns about occupancy, traffic and the impact the trade center might have on city services.
"I've been a cautious supporter, but I'm still saying 'supporter,' not that it's going to be something terrible for the city," Smith said. "I think I'm just bringing up more of the people's concerns."
Bryant, on the other hand, has been unequivocal in his opposition.
"I would rather see a parking lot in its place," Bryant said. "Why would anybody in his right mind want to go to a world trade center in Pomona?"
He said he attempted to have the mayor and councilmen arrested because he believed they were violating the Brown Act, which prohibits legislative business from being conducted in private.
Smith, who was the only council member not present at the meeting, said she had been away on another business commitment but saw no irregularities in the gathering.