POMONA — H. Thomas Felvey, whose four-year effort to build a $96-million world trade center in downtown Pomona died earlier this year after he was unable to secure commitments from investors and tenants, has worked recently on a similar project in Santa Ana.
Felvey, whose legal and financial problems eventually caused Pomona city officials to view his role with increasing skepticism, worked as an unpaid consultant with the World Trade Assn. of Orange County. That group hopes to build a $100-million complex devoted to international trade activities in downtown Santa Ana.
But whereas the Pomona project was conceived and promoted largely by Felvey, the Santa Ana trade center has been envisioned by business leaders in Orange County for more than a decade.
Trail of Debts
And although Felvey has played a critical role in putting together a project team to develop the Santa Ana complex, his participation in the venture has been carefully charted by the trade group that is organizing the effort.
The Orange County group's caution stemmed from the publication of information about the business dealings of Felvey, whose past includes a trail of debts, tax liens and unfinished projects.
Since 1977, he has failed to answer 18 lawsuits filed against him and three of his corporations. A number of former business associates claim in the suits that he walked out on deals and left them unpaid.
Those suits resulted in default judgments totaling more than $270,000, but some plaintiffs said they doubt they'll ever collect what's due them. At least two other lawsuits against him are pending.
'Talking to Everybody'
Reached at his office in Laguna Niguel, Felvey, 42, would not comment on his past or on the Pomona project, his first major undertaking as a developer. He also refused to acknowledge that his current company is called Urban Equities, the name he used with Santa Ana officials and the World Trade Center Assn. of Orange County.
He did say that he believed the Pomona project was still viable and that he has been "talking to everybody" about trying to get it done--even though the city has ended its exclusive arrangement with him to develop it.
He also minimized his role with the Orange County group.
"I only worked for about four months as a consultant, and I didn't take any payment because I want to further the cause," he said. "I'm a volunteer to the association. I have no further role in this project. My job's done."
Felvey said he gave the group "some ideas" on getting a trade center built. But others say his role was much more involved.
'Done a Very Good Job'
"Tom's done everything he said he was going to do, and he's done a very good job," said Susan T. Lentz, executive director of the association. "We wouldn't have got as far as we have without him. He has been the spark."
The staff at the Santa Ana Redevelopment Agency, which is seeking bids to develop the acre parcel, consider him as the prime mover behind the filing of a statement of qualifications outlining a team of well-known builders and developers ready to put up a trade center.
"It's his submission," Josephine La Quay, an agency project manager, said about the filing.
Richard J. Schwarzstein, a Newport Beach lawyer who co-founded the association 12 years ago, said Felvey is "very knowledgeable about the world trade center concept" and helped the association by putting the development team together.
"He wasn't going to be the developer for us anyhow," Schwarzstein said, "so it was a pleasure to work with him."
Association members had read all the stories printed about Felvey, Lentz said.
Others Less Charitable
"That's why the agreement (to have him act only as a consultant) was predicated the way it was," she said.
Whatever measure of redemption Felvey has gained for his work in Santa Ana, others who have crossed his path are less charitable.
Robert Clayton, whose economic consulting firm, R & R Clayton Inc., worked on two of Felvey's projects including the Pomona World Trade Center, said people should be cautious about retaining Felvey to work on a major project, including the trade center in Santa Ana.
"Mr. Felvey's involvement is like starting the project with a huge iron ball chained around your neck," Clayton said. "Mr. Felvey's credibility in the financial world is very slim. A . . . number of people in Southern California have the skills to develop a project of that nature. . . . Mr. Felvey would be the last person I'd look for."
Good First Impression
Clayton said Felvey is best suited to be a promoter, the role he played early on in the Pomona trade center project.
"I think he makes a very good initial impression," Clayton said. "I think that in the case of Pomona, for example, he was able to appear credible to the city. He has a friendly sort of outgoing manner that seems to work well. But when it got to the nitty-gritty of negotiations, he didn't seem to understand a lot of the details.
Pomona Mayor Donna Smith offered a similar, but more positive, assessment of Felvey.