An issue of trust

Wrapping up "The Randy Previs Files"

Randy Previs seems to make a lasting impression on people.

In the course of the research I did for the recently-concluded Island Times series, "Taking Care of Business: The Randy Previs Files," I contacted many of the people the Edmonds developer had dealt with since 1979.

And while the details of what had transpired as much as 20 years ago were sometimes hazy in people's recollection, everybody vividly remembered Randy Previs.

The phrase, "a piece of work" arose with amazing regularity. A portrait emerged of a charming wheeler-dealer with chutzpah to spare, a taste for flashy cars, big boats and expensive homes … and an impressive knack for getting them with other people's money.

One creditor from Previs' 1990 bankruptcy recalls Previs telling him about the time some investors from the East came to Ellensburg to see Valley View Ranch, a development project that subsequently fell apart. This former business associate says Previs told him he went to pick the investors up in a red Ferrari he had bought with their own investment capital.

The red convertible also stuck in another creditor's memory. Bruce Lippencott, retired president of the George Sollitt Corporation, says he got one look at the sports car and thought, "This guy is living way beyond his means."

A number of those I contacted said they wouldn’t talk to me because they didn't want to dredge up painful old memories. Asked how much money he and his wife lost when Previs' investments collapsed in the mid-1980's, one elderly gentleman simply said, "I don't even want to think about it."

Many of the folks I spoke to who had been on the losing end of Previs' extravagant deals say he came across as competent, persuasive and self-confident. His manner, they say, left them feeling that they had entrusted their money to someone who would make it grow.

"He gave us financial statements that made it look like he was worth the northwest corner of Fort Knox," says Sollitt attorney Garth Schlemlein. "He's a pretty good salesman."

"Randy talks a good game and has beautiful blueprints," says a man who lost over $10,000 when Previs took Chapter 7 in 1990. "He has a great deal of talent and he was always so smooth and so good at telling people about his great plans."

"The man has vision," says Lou Chaffos, an architect who lost over $60,000 when Previs didn't pay for design work done for his failed Marina East condominium project. "He was way ahead of his time. He's a visionary, but …"

These begrudging statements of admiration for Previs from those who got burned by him often seem to end with a "but …"

"…but his business methods were not conducive to generating a lot of trust in him by other people."

"… but his visions of grandeur aren't backed up by his actions."

" … but this wasn't some corporation he declared bankruptcy against. It was us personally. And he didn't even have the courtesy to call and tell us."

Some of the creditors who got stiffed are still bitter, a decade or more later.

"If you gave me 100 men in the world to trust," says the former business associate, "he would be the last."

Others, such as Bruce Lippencott, take a more philosophical view.

"I'm just amazed by his inventiveness," Lippencott says. "He's nothing if not inventive …"

Lippencott pauses.

"But I do kind of hope somebody trips him up someday."

I, too, was impressed when I met Randy Previs. His handshake is firm, his eye-contact steady, his smile warm. He answers questions with the practiced ease of a man accustomed to persuading others to help him build his dreams. Face-to-face, Randy Previs feels like someone you can trust.

So what are we to make of the long and well-documented trail Previs has left behind that seems to indicate that -- at least in matters of money -- he is not to be trusted?

I understand that real estate development is a high-stakes game. Developers borrow and spend huge amounts of money and are particularly vulnerable to the fluctuations of the financial and real estate markets. More than once, a developer has crapped-out big time when the prime interest rate rose a fraction of a point and stalled the market for commercial property.

I also know that, if you sit at a bar and listen to developers over a few beers, many like to envision themselves as latter-day gun-slingers and buccaneers. One Orcas Island real estate wheeler-dealer used to have a black skull-and-crossbones imprinted on his checks. Randy Previs at one point owned a racing powerboat named "The Gambler."

But Previs' story isn't about going bust because of a badly-timed investment decision or a miscalculation in reading the market or any of the other pratfalls that could happen to any high-rolling developer. Previs has been found, in court after court, to be willing to cut ethical corners, to shade the truth and to skip out on his obligations, not just once or twice or occasionally, but habitually and systematically, over many years.

Does this make Previs a bad person? That's not for me to say. But I believe it does make him a bad risk.

Randy Previs is proposing to drastically and permanently change the island's front door, the face that welcomes us home when we return from the mainland. He asks us to trust him that it will be tasteful, beautiful and an improvement over what we have now.

Given the history, a lot of people are saying they simply don't want to take that risk.

And, frankly, neither do I.

I'll see you on the street.

This article is copyright 1999 The Island Times. Reposted here with permission.