St. Paul skyscraper nearly condemned after convicted con man ‘abandoned’ project

A banner above the entrance to the former Ecolab University building in downtown St. Paul still advertises what is supposed to be the property’s new identity as “The Nicole” — luxury apartments at the 17-story high-rise.

But more than two years after a staple of the city’s skyline sold at auction, it remains empty and abandoned, according to court records reviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES.

After it was nearly condemned late last year, a Ramsey County judge agreed to place the property in receivership, taking control away from John E. Thomas, a Chicago developer and two-time convicted felon who has been called a “serial con man.” 

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

Thomas insists that money was spent on redeveloping the building and more funding to finish the project is on the way.

But he faces a long list of people and companies in Minnesota who say they are still owed millions of dollars for renovation work which came to a halt last year.

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

At last check, court records show no evidence that Thomas has refinanced the project or made any payments.

John Thomas, shown here during a recent interview with 5 Investigates, said he did not abandon
the former Ecolab building in downtown St. Paul and that all subcontractors would be paid.

Thomas: ‘In over my head’

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

He agreed to a sit-down interview only after 5 INVESTIGATES traveled to Chicago and found him walking out of his downtown office to his BMW.

From behind his desk the next day, Thomas repeatedly said he got “in over my head” on the St. Paul project. 

“I’ve never built anything that far away, 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 start work on floors three through five at the former Ecolab tower. 

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

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

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

“Now, it’s not even about the money anymore. I’d like to see this guy accountable for what he’s doing,” Grabow said. “How do you hire contractors without financing in place, knowing that you don’t have the money?”

Scott Tasler’s construction company also filed a lien on the property after he said Thomas and his company failed to pay him for nearly $300,000 worth of 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 contractor like myself.”

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

“We need to get paid for the work we did,” Fischer said. “Take care of your business.”

Court records show subcontractors are owed more than $3 million combined.

Dead manager blamed

Thomas specifically blames a former project manager, Spiro Siavelis, who is now dead. 

“I didn’t know what was happening and I relied on people I shouldn’t have,” Thomas said.

Thomas’ companies, which include Freedom Development Group, are suing the estate of Siavelis. 

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 was representing the bank and representing us, but at the end of the day, he was representing none of us,” Thomas said. 

Attorneys for the estate of Siavelis did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Nearly condemned

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

An attorney for Westridge Lending REIT filed a complaint against them last year saying Thomas “has run out of money, failed to pay contractors, and construction on the building came to a halt many months ago.”

The lending company successfully requested the former Ecolab property be taken out of Thomas’ control after describing it as a “dire emergency.”

Inspectors with the City of St. Paul noted “deficiencies” at the building including no electricity, no heat, and broken windows which “nearly resulted in the condemnation of the property,” according to court records.

The 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 have all this money laying around and if I did, I’d fix everything. I live deal to deal.”

“Serial con man”

It is another failed deal and abandoned property that is giving 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 south Chicago suburb, after promising 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 prison for another conviction out of New York in 2003 but had blown his second chance in “spectacular fashion.”

Prosecutors described him as a “serial con man” who once even tried to pay an attorney with a fake Babe Ruth-signed baseball. 

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

Thomas says he has turned his life around since getting out of prison in 2017 and has since paid his restitution for the fraud in Riverdale. 

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

“It’s disgraceful. It really is because that’s a beautiful piece of property,” Hampton said. “I look over there and sometimes I just cringe.”

New promises

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

Nicole Goodman, Director of St. Paul’s Planning and Economic Development called the stalled redevelopment unfortunate.

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

Joe Spencer, President of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance said he does not know all of the details of the problems at the former Ecolab building but acknowledged John Thomas’ company has been on his radar since the project began.

“Obviously, there’s some red flags and concern,” Spencer said.“It’s kind of the epicenter of downtown… We look to the successes around it to see what’s really possible and we see tremendous potential.”

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

At the time of his interview with 5 INVESTIGATES in January, Thomas said he was about to close on a new multi-million dollar loan to re-acquire the building.

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