Trump Franchise Hotel To Open In Small Mississippi Town

Nov 18, 2017
Originally published on November 18, 2017 8:36 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Trump is going into the heart of Southern blues territory. His organization is trying to create a whole new line of hotels. First one is set to open in a small town in Mississippi. But not everyone welcomes that arrival. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Cleveland, Miss., is just a speck of a town sitting in the wide-open cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. Two interstate highways lined with diners, auto body shops and strip malls dissect the town. Just off one of them on the edge of town, you can see the shell of a new hotel sitting in an overgrown field.

I'm right up at the front doors. There's some siding on the building. Some of the windows are in. And there's some construction materials around, but there's nobody else here. It's very quiet, and it looks abandoned.

Construction on the hotel has been delayed since July to make changes to its structure and design.

JUDSON THIGPEN: They want a two- or three-story opening when you walk - lobby area. And I think they had probably built a single-floor level.

NORTHAM: That's Judson Thigpen, the executive director of Cleveland's Chamber of Commerce. He says the new hotel will be more upmarket than the handful of budget hotels already in Cleveland.

THIGPEN: Ninety-two hundred rooms, the boutique, full-service hotel with the rooftop bar and a nice restaurant and all those kind of things. So we're looking forward to having that one.

NORTHAM: When finished, this will be the first in a new line of four-star hotels franchised by the Trump Organization. It'll be called Scion. But Thigpen says the Trump connection won't be obvious.

THIGPEN: As my understanding it, the Trump name is not going to be attached to the hotel. It's not going to be the Trump Scion. It's going to be the Scion.

NORTHAM: The hotel is actually owned by two Indian-American brothers, Dinesh and Suresh Chawla. Earlier this year, they reached a franchising agreement with the Trump hotels. The big question is, why here? Cleveland hardly has the glamour of cities normally associated with the Trump brand such as New York and Washington. Why would the Trumps want to roll out a new line of hotels in a sleepy town that's a good two-hour drive from any medium-sized airport?

JAN DEROOS: I think because they could. I think the organization was looking for success. They had individuals willing to sign the franchise license agreement.

NORTHAM: Jan deRoos specializes in hotel contracts and franchises at Cornell's College of Business. He says creating the Scion line in Cleveland could be a challenge. Usually, four-star hotels are built in cities of at least 100,000 people. And companies don't normally unveil a new line until they have at least 10 other franchises in place. Cleveland is home to Delta State University, but deRoos says there's a bigger attraction than that.

DEROOS: The presence of the Grammy Museum in Cleveland is a big draw for them. I think the Grammy Museum is the major demand generator and the reason why the hotel is in that town.

NORTHAM: The Grammy Museum opened a year and a half ago.

And what do we got here?

EMILY HAVENS: This is a large gramophone that starts our tour of the exhibits.

NORTHAM: The lobby of the Grammy Museum in Cleveland highlights many of music's giants that come from Mississippi - Sam Cooke, Leontyne Price and Robert Johnson, who reportedly sold his soul to the devil to become a legendary blues man. Emily Havens, the executive director of this large, interactive museum, says about 70,000 people from around the world have visited since it opened. But most were day trippers.

HAVENS: We have a shortage of hotel rooms. Our hotels stay full with construction workers and business men and women during the week. And on the weekends, they're full with Delta State athletics parents and families. And so we need hotel rooms.

NORTHAM: Mississippi voted overwhelmingly for Trump as president, but Cleveland itself leans towards Democrats. And a Trump-backed hotel doesn't appeal to everyone. There's a busy lunch crowd here at the Senator's Place diner. Most of the dozen or so tables are taken - people enjoying heaping plates of fried chicken, greens and black-eyed peas for a good price. Clint Williams sipped on a big glass of sweet iced tea and shared his thoughts about the new hotel. Initially, he was glad to have a hotel with a spa in Cleveland.

CLINT WILLIAMS: But to be honest, when they made mention that Donald Trump's name was on it, I most haven't changed my mind completely because I just don't feel comfortable spending my money knowing that it will be supporting him and his ideas.

NORTHAM: Many ethics experts are alarmed about the Trump Organization entering new deals. Trump placed his business interests in a revocable trust, which means any profits from his hotels will be waiting for him once he leaves office.

BILLY NOWELL: I'm Billy Nowell, and I'm mayor of the city of Cleveland, Miss.

NORTHAM: Mayor Nowell waves away concerns about the Trump connection. He says a new hotel will help develop the town. And Cleveland is a long way from Washington, D.C.

NOWELL: Every day I wake up, I'm really not that much surprised by what goes on in Washington, what goes on anywhere. In this particular case, I see nothing but good coming out of Cleveland having this boutique hotel.

NORTHAM: And if everything goes to plan, the Trumps will have a stake in this town in the middle of the Mississippi Delta by early next year. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.