JACKSON — The Trump organization withdrew from a project to build a luxury hotel complex in Cleveland, but the local partner, Chawla Hotels, is full steam ahead on the 18-acre $20 million venture.
The Trump organization dropped out of the project because of politics, company President Donald Trump Jr. said in a five-person conference call. The media is all over them, so they are scaling back new projects and plans.
“Our father has the most important and powerful job in the world. We live in a climate where everything will be used against us, whether by the fake news or by Democrats who are only interested in presidential harassment and wasting everyone’s time, barraging us with nonsense letters. We already have the greatest properties in the world, and if we have to slow down our growth for the time being, we are happy to do it,” Trump said.
Suresh Chawla had organized the call to ensure the best possible spin on the Trump withdrawal. For 15 minutes Donald Jr. praised the Chawlas, the project and Mississippi, and trashed the liberal mainstream media. There was some irony that he was talking to three people in the media chosen by Suresh to help him tell his story.
Trump praised the Chawlas for not litigating and looked forward to a return to the Delta, maybe at the 2020 Delta Council meeting. “You guys know me. I’m a duck hunting, deer hunting, fishing kind of guy. I could probably quite easily move down to the Delta and have a pretty good time. You never have to twist my arm to eat that kind of food either. That is my style.”
The Cleveland hotel was to be the first in the Scion group of luxury hotels throughout the country. Three other existing Chawla hotels were going to be converted to a new Trump mid-market hotel brand.
In a joint statement, Dinesh and Suresh Chawla said, “We are honored to have had the opportunity to work with the Trump Organization. Don, Eric and the entire Trump Hotels team are fantastic people, and their family helped launch our path to the American Dream 30 years ago. Our product is far superior today to when we started and that is because of the time and expertise that Trump Hotels dedicated to us. We understand their position completely and are grateful for their professionalism. We hope that when the time is right, we can work with Trump Hotels again.”
The Chawlas will carry on without the Trumps, going back to their original name, The Lyric hotel.
The project hopes to benefit from the Blues Trail that runs through the Delta and the new Cleveland Grammy Museum as well as events at Delta State University.
Three buildings in the 11-building complex are nearly complete, and five more are currently under construction. There will be a three-acre greenspace that can host a 7,000-person concert.
They also plan to form the Chawla Hospitality Academy at Coahoma Community College near Clarksdale to train students for all aspects of the hotel industry.
Chawla Hotels was founded by V.K. Chawla, who passed away in 2015. His two sons, Dinesh and Suresh, are carrying on their father’s dream. The family is an amazing success story personifying the American Dream.
In 1960, V.K. Chawla left India where he had been living in an internment camp as a refugee for nine years after the execution of his father and two brothers in a religious war. He moved to Germany, where he received a doctorate in environmental sciences. In 1964, he moved to Canada, where he worked for the government.
In 1977, he moved his family to Greenwood and eventually opened Jackie’s Food Center and a fried chicken restaurant that he and his wife, Chander, ran from 1977 to 1992. In 1989, they opened their first hotel, the former Comfort Inn of Greenwood. The company would eventually own and operate 17 hotels in the Mississippi Delta, employing more than 300 people.
The Emmerichs and the Chawlas go way back. As Suresh says, “Your father gave my father his first job in Greenwood, and your mother gave my mother her first job as well.”
The Trump-Chawla connection began in 1988 when V.K. Chawla boldly called Trump on the phone seeking funding. To everyone’s surprise, Trump called back.
V.K. proceeded to tell Trump that he had this bold idea to build first-class hotel accommodations in one of the poorest regions of the country, the Mississippi Delta. V.K. admitted to Trump he had been turned down by every bank all over the South with which he had applied. He went into great detail about how he had emigrated to this county in 1977 and all he was trying to do to work his way up and be a successful entrepreneur like Trump. He asked Mr. Trump if Trump would loan him $425,000 to build his first hotel.
Trump declined to invest, but said V.K.’s story of coming to America was wonderful and he should be proud of his success. Trump suggested seeking alternative financing. They talked for nearly 10 minutes.
The conversation inspired V.K. to seek a Small Business Administration loan. It was the start of a tremendous success story.
Fast forward to December 2016 when Suresh and Dinesh announced plans for a full-service hotel in Cleveland.
Trump was planning a campaign stop in Jackson and Gov. Phil Bryant, an ardent Trump supporter, urged Suresh to be there.
The governor introduced Suresh to Trump, who listened to the Chawlas’ latest project and encouraged him to “think grand.”
The Chawlas nearly doubled the scope of the plan — to $15 million.
The Trump organization, which was being run by the president’s sons, reached out to the Chawlas. After three months of negotiations, they formed a partnership.
The story had come full circle.
The Chawlas are not the only Indian immigrant family that my family is close to. Doc Sethi fled India’s religious strife in 1968 and started over in Greenwood. He and his wife, Raksha, became dear friends of my parents. Their children Sunny Sethi and Monica Sethi Harrigill now help oversee 1,500 employees in the family hotel and food services company, Jackie’s International. Another daughter, Manisha Sethi, is a popular Ridgeland internal medicine physician.
The Chawlas and the Sethis have made Mississippi a better place. Their success is why the United States should expand legal immigration and welcome ambitious people from around the world who hope to make better lives for themselves and their families. This is especially true now that declining birth rates will cause U.S. population declines without outside immigration.