Virginia man spends $1 million to let others attend inauguration
by Nafeesa Syeed, Detroit Free Press
At the JW Marriott Hotel, $1 million will buy you 300 hotel rooms, $200,000 worth of food and private access to a tented, heated balcony overlooking the parade route of President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Earl W. Stafford is buying it all — and giving it away to strangers.
Stafford, a Virginia businessman, plans to invite disadvantaged people, wounded soldiers and others to the prime location on Pennsylvania Avenue. He’s calling it the People’s Inaugural Project, inviting those who would never otherwise have a chance to wear tuxedos or satin dresses to the president’s swearing-in.
“We believe it is important to include those who are less fortunate because like Barack Obama, we too believe in the American dream,” Stafford said today.
Stafford bought the package a week before the election, said Erick Speight, the hotel’s senior sales executive. Several corporations expressed interest, but Stafford was quick to turn in his deposit.
“My initial reaction was probably shock,” Speight said. “Listening to Mr. Stafford and what he wanted to do seemed surreal; that he was going to purchase the package and venue for such a selfless act was really mind-blowing.”
Stafford, founder of Universal Systems & Technology Inc. in Centreville, Va., paid $1 million for the hotel package, but is working to raise more money for an inaugural ball for 1,000 people, plus a youth ball.
Guests found by nonprofits and social service groups will also get gowns and tuxedos, and grooming from hairstylists and makeup artists. There will be a prayer breakfast and luncheon the day before the inauguration, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Stafford, who is black, said his Christian faith motivated him to take on the project.
Lavern Chatman, president of the Northern Virginia Urban League, is helping organize the ball. Though it’s a pricey event for those facing economic hardship, she said the benefits are worthwhile.
“These are distressed economic times, so you don’t want to be wasteful,” she said. “But how do you give people hope? How do you make people a part of something? This is an investment and one that will be in people’s souls and hearts. So I don’t see it as a one-time thing; I see it as a lifetime experience.”
And if Obama were to show up? Says Stafford, “That certainly would be icing on the cake.”