St. Paul’s skyscraper almost doomed after convicted scammer’s project was dropped

A banner above the entrance to the old Ecolab University building in downtown St. Paul still advertises what is supposed to be the property’s new identity as “The Nicole” – des luxury apartments in the 17-storey tower.

But more than two years after a city skyline staple was auctioned off, it remains empty and abandoned, according to court records reviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES.

After nearly being convicted late last year, a Ramsey County judge agreed to put the property into receivership, taking control of John E. Thomas, a Chicago developer and twice-convicted felon who was called a “serial crook”.

Thomas and his company are accused of defaulting on a nearly $12 million loan for which the building was used as collateral.

Thomas insists money has been spent to redevelop the building and more funds to complete the project are on the way.

But he faces a long list of people and businesses in Minnesota who say they are still owed millions of dollars for renovations that stopped last year.

“There is a new loan,” Thomas told 5 INVESTIGATES in January. “It will be refinanced and everyone will be paid and that will be it.”

When last checked, court records show no evidence that Thomas refinanced the project or made any payments.

John Thomas, shown here during a recent interview with 5 Investigates, said he hasn’t given up
the old Ecolab building in downtown St. Paul and that all contractors would be paid.

Thomas: ‘Over my head’

Thomas and his company initially did not respond to calls, texts and emails seeking comment.

He only agreed to an interview after 5 INVESTIGATES drove to Chicago and found him walking out of his downtown office toward his BMW.

From behind his desk the next day, Thomas repeated repeatedly that he was “over my head” on the St. Paul project.

“I’ve never built anything this far, so I thought these guys…knew what they were doing,” Thomas said.

He blamed other business partners for letting the building fall into disrepair and failing to pay subcontractors.

The subcontractors

Jeremy Grabow, the owner of Grabow Painting Services in Chisago City, was hired in January 2021 to begin work on floors three through five of the former Ecolab tower.

“Due to the size of the project, we were obviously interested,” Grabow said.

Grabow says his company had completed 80% of their work, but eventually walked off the job after they stopped getting paid.

He is still owed $120,000, according to a lien he filed.

“Now it’s not even a question of money. I would like to see this guy accountable for what he does,” Grabow said. “How do you hire contractors without financing in place, knowing you don’t have the money? »

Scott Tasler’s construction company also filed a lien on the property after saying Thomas and his company failed to pay him for nearly $300,000 in work.

“At first it was, ‘don’t worry, it’s coming,'” Tasler said. “That’s a lot of money to make up for a small entrepreneur like me.”

Eric Fischer of Fish Woodworking said he owed $120,000 after payments stopped coming from a company he later learned was owned by Thomas.

“We need to be paid for the work we’ve done,” Fischer said. “Take care of your business.

Court records show the contractors owe more than $3 million combined.

The dead manager blamed

Thomas specifically blames a former project manager, Spiro Siavelis, now deceased.

“I didn’t know what was going on and I was relying on people I shouldn’t have had,” Thomas said.

Thomas’ companies, including Freedom Development Group, are pursuing the Siavelis estate.

The lawsuit, which is still pending in Illinois, claims Siavelis was responsible for the failure of the Ecolab property, as well as several other projects.

“We relied on a guy who we thought represented the bank and represented us, but at the end of the day he didn’t represent any of us,” Thomas said.

Lawyers for Siavelis’ estate did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

almost doomed

Back in Minnesota, the blame is squarely on Thomas and his business partner.

A lawyer for Westridge Lending REIT filed a lawsuit against them last year, saying Thomas ‘ran out of money, hadn’t paid the contractors and construction of the building had stopped several years ago. month”.

The lending company successfully requested that the former Ecolab property be removed from Thomas’ control after describing it as an “extreme emergency”.

City of St. Paul inspectors noted ‘flaws’ in the building, including lack of electricity, heating and broken windows, which ‘almost resulted in condemnation of the property’, according to court records .

Former Ecolab building in downtown St. Paul was nearly condemned late last year
after a developer “abandoned” the building, according to court records.

“There was a shooting across the street, the windows, that’s how they broke. It’s not like I broke the windows,” Thomas said. “People think I’ve got all this money lying around and if it did I’d fix it. I live business to business.

“Serial Scammer”

It’s another failed deal and abandoned property that gives lawyers, lenders and contractors reason to be skeptical.

Thomas was convicted in 2015 of stealing more than $370,000 in taxpayer money from the Village of Riverdale, a southern suburb of Chicago, after he promised to redevelop the town’s marina.

In a memo filed with the court before sentencing in that case, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Thomas had previously served as an FBI informant to avoid going to jail for another conviction in New York in 2003, but that he had ‘spectacularly’ squandered his second chance. .”

Prosecutors have described him as a “serial crook” who once even tried to pay off a lawyer with a fake baseball signed Babe Ruth.

“I bought a real baseball that I thought was real and gave it to a guy to hold for a bill,” Thomas said. “I didn’t say I haven’t made mistakes in my life. I’ve done a ton. I’m just trying not to do it again.”

Thomas says he has turned his life around since being released from prison in 2017 and has since paid his restitution for the Riverdale fraud.

But the marina property is still vacant and littered with derelict boats – an eyesore for neighbors such as Carl Hampton and his family who live across the river in Calumet Park.

” It is shameful. It’s really because it’s a beautiful property,” Hampton said. “I look out there and sometimes I cringe.”

New promises

The City of St. Paul declined requests for interviews about what happened with the old Ecolab building and whether John Thomas should continue to be involved in the redevelopment there.

Nicole Goodman, St. Paul’s director of planning and economic development, called the stalled redevelopment unfortunate.

“It’s a prominent structure in a critical corner, and clearly we’d like to see development completed and the location activated,” Goodman said in a written statement.

Joe Spencer, president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance, said he didn’t know all the details of the problems at the old Ecolab building, but acknowledged that John Thomas’ company had been on his radar from the start. of the project.

“Obviously there are red flags and concerns,” Spencer said. “It’s sort of the epicenter of downtown… We’re looking to the successes around to see what’s really possible and we see huge potential.”

Thomas insists he’s not ready to walk away from the project.

At the time of his interview with 5 INVESTIGATES in January, Thomas said he was close to taking out a new multi-million dollar loan to buy the building back.

“I will pay whatever I owe with interest,” he said. “You can take this to the bank.”

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