POMONA — The proposed Inland Pacific World Trade Center appears to be dying a slow death, according to both proponents and foes of the $96-million project.
In recent months, Birtcher, the center's main development partner, has withdrawn its support for the project, and Grubb & Ellis, the real estate firm that was to have marketed retail and office space for the complex, has stopped advertising for tenants.
The lone remaining catalyst for the project is still promoter H. Thomas Felvey, who proposed the idea of a world trade center to city officials in 1985. At that time, his firm, Urbanetics Inc., received the exclusive right from the city to develop the 4.6-acre parcel, across the street from Pomona's Civic Center.
Last April, the City Council voted to issue $100 million in revenue bonds to finance the construction of the 12-story office, hotel and retail complex that many hoped would spark an economic and cultural rebirth in Pomona.
The city gave Felvey until May 1 of this year to obtain sufficient credit guarantees and other means of security for the bonds.
Council members have been increasingly skeptical of Felvey's ability to line up financial backers since last May, when a report published by The Times revealed that he had been the target of numerous lawsuits in connection with unpaid debts and unfinished projects.
In the three months since Birtcher informed the city that it had determined the project to be "too ambitious and complex," Felvey has been keeping a very low profile.
Receptionists at Birtcher's Santa Ana office, where Felvey maintained an office last year, said they do not know where he can be reached and no longer accept messages for him. Wayne Soldano, vice president and sales manager for the San Gabriel Valley office of Grubb & Ellis, said he has been unable to reach Felvey for several months.
"I just don't know where the guy is," Soldano said.
Last month, Grubb & Ellis removed a sign advertising office and retail space in the trade center from the vacant lot at Garey Avenue and Mission Boulevard where construction had been scheduled to begin last spring.
"As far as I'm concerned, there is no world trade center project at this point," Soldano said.
However, Sanford A. Sorenson, Pomona's director of community development, said Felvey has called him twice in the last month to report that he is negotiating with a firm to succeed Birtcher as the major partner in the venture.
"We've notified Mr. Felvey that we're not moving forward until there is a qualified development partner for the project," Sorenson said. "He indicated that the principal firm he was dealing with would be making its decision during the month of February."
But Sorenson said that his office does not have Felvey's phone number and that he does not know where the promoter is conducting his business.
"I think he was calling from his car phone," Sorenson said.
For Felvey to meet the May 1 deadline, Sorenson said, he would have to have firm commitments of financial backing "no later than the middle of March."
"It's an awfully short time to interest someone in a project of this magnitude," he said.
If Felvey cannot put together a trade center project by the deadline, ownership of the property will transfer to Kajima International Inc., which last April paid the city $1 million for the land, which had been priced at $500,000.
Kajima would then be obligated to build some type of project worth at least $10 million on the site within five years or ownership of the land would revert to the city's Redevelopment Agency, Sorenson said.
Mayor Donna Smith said she remains hopeful that Felvey can arrange financing for the trade center before the deadline.
"The project is not dead," Smith said. "We still have until May 1, and the council is not ready to give up the ship. . . . We've waited this long, and a couple more months won't hurt."
Councilman Mark Nymeyer agreed it is too early to give up hope on the project.
"I know a few things that are going on behind the scenes, but I'm not at liberty to say what they are," Nymeyer said. "It is not over, by any means."
But the other three council members were not as positive in their assessments.
Councilman E. J. (Jay) Gaulding, who said the project had a 90% chance of going forward after Felvey's history of financial and legal problems came to light last May, said this week that the probability had fallen to "something less than 50%."
"Though I guess miracles can happen, I don't expect this will be one of them," Gaulding said.
Councilwoman Nell Soto, who has been very critical of Felvey's involvement with the venture, also expressed a gloomy outlook.
"I'm hoping they will be able to salvage it, but I don't know how possible that will be," Soto said. "To get another firm for a world trade center at this late date would almost be an impossible thing."
Pomona's business leaders, who have strongly supported the trade center proposal, are guardedly optimistic in their appraisal of the project's chances.