Wyatt Emmerich: A Mississippi story of Trump, hotels and two immigrant families

 

Wyatt Emmerich

 

 

The Trump organization withdrew from a project to build a luxury hotel complex in Cleveland, Miss., 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. 

 

While on the call, my staff was yacking outside my office door. I had fun telling them to be quiet. "Could y'all keep it down? I'm trying to have a conversation with Donald Trump," I told them, which was technically correct. 

 

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. 

 

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 owns 17 hotels in the Delta. It 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 PhD 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 Jackies 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 that he had applied with. He went into great detail about how he had emigrated to this county in 1977 and all he was trying to do was 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, 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 to form a new luxury hotel chain, the first three of which would be existing Chawla hotels that would be converted to the new brand. 

 

The story had come full circle. 

 

Interestingly enough, 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. 

 

Wyatt Emmerich is the editor and publisher of The Northside Sun, a weekly newspaper in Jackson. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

 

 

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