The Washington Post: Blues brothers Don Jr. and Eric Trump gamble on Mississippi tourism

Jake Brown crooned the Mississippi blues to a nearly all-black audience on the outskirts of town, his guitar filling the darkened club with pangs of heartbreak and regret.

Between numbers, the local singer paused and in a gravelly drawl, beseeched the crowd to be thankful. For God. For the Mississippi blues. And for Donald Trump’s hotel, being built on the other side of Cleveland.

“Have you all been out west of Cleveland?” he queried his audience. “To those that don’t know, get ready. Get ready, ’cause the blues is on the way.”

President Trump’s hotel company, the New York-based managers of luxury properties and golf courses around the globe, seems an unlikely presence in this struggling stretch of the Delta, where new businesses are hard to recruit and black residents are eight times more likely than whites to face unemployment.

But in June, the Trump Organization, now run by the president’s sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, bestowed a singular distinction upon Cleveland, population 12,000, and two nearby towns. It announced it would debut two new hotel brands here, beginning with a four-star, 100-room Scion hotel originally designed to replicate an antebellum plantation.

A sign in downtown Cleveland, Miss., shows another hotel development in the area where the Trump family plans to open properties. The hope of the buildup is to lure tourists in search of blues music. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

In a partnership with local owners, the company said it would reopen two Comfort Inns and a Rodeway Inn after bringing them up to Trump standards and use the properties to launch its newest brand, known as “American Idea.”

It is nearly unheard of for a national hotel company to debut hotel lines in one of America’s poorest corners, surrounded by cotton and soybean fields and lacking a commercial airport or even an easily accessed interstate.

But the plan offers the first glimpse into how Trump’s sons will steer the company while he is in the White House. The Trump Organization is planning dozens of locations “designed to work in every city U.S.A.,” said company spokeswoman Christine Da Silva. It’s the company’s first appeal to middle America, the core of Trump’s political base.

Expansion of the Trump brand ratchets up the ethical implications for the president, who maintains his financial stake in the company he founded. The expansion could involve partnerships, new investors and local government approvals posing potential conflicts of interest. The Scion project, for example, is already slated to receive city and county tax breaks over seven years.

The deals could test the country’s acceptance of a complex business divestiture that Trump announced earlier this year, in which he defers profits but maintains his financial stake in the Trump Organization. Ethics experts quickly criticized the divestiture, and a federal lawsuit alleges that it violates an obscure constitutional provision known as the emoluments clause.

The president’s explosive Twitter forays into racial issues — like the violent white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, and the NFL kneeling controversy — also have begun to shade how Mississippi residents view the expansion. The Scion hotel is designed to take advantage of the Delta as a growing destination for blues enthusiasts, a plan that some black residents view as Trump’s effort to monetize the threadbare music invented by slaves in the Mississippi cotton fields.

“It shows he really doesn’t have a conscience. It’s about money,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who is black and represents the area, said in a phone interview.

Jake Brown, a blues musician, in his shop in Cleveland, Miss. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

The president has said he does not defend white supremacy and his comments about the NFL were not about race.

Ellis Turnage, a black attorney and Democrat who has represented black residents of Cleveland in voting rights lawsuits, said he thinks acceptance of the Trump hotels will hinge on whether economic arguments prevail over political ones.

“People are looking for something that’s going to raise Mississippi up off the bottom,” he said.

Turnage said he does not have a single friend who admits to voting for Trump. But when it comes to the new hotels, he said, “I don’t see that as an issue. I mean, Cleveland needs hotels.”

A ‘big thing’ for Mississippi

Economic revival has long been challenging in Bolivar County, home to Cleveland, where 53.3 percent of children live in poverty, according to 2015 census data. Fifty nine percent of households make less than $35,000 a year, and the region has barely recovered from the recession and the closures of factories that once produced ceramic tiles and auto parts.

But the area has a selling point that the state of Mississippi has seized upon as a marketing slogan, now emblazoned on license plates and highway signs: “Birthplace of America’s Music.”

Assorted museums and clubs along Highway 61, “the Blues Highway,” tout the names of state natives and blues originators B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and others. Last year, the local economy got a $20 million jolt with the opening of a Grammy museum in Cleveland, the first outside of Los Angeles and just down the street from the Trumps’ Scion.

In its first 17 months, the Grammy museum attracted 55,000 visitors, beating expectations, and welcomed 8,000 students for educational programming. The museum attracts big names for its events, like a recent show on the front lawn featuring Grammy Award winners Bobby Rush, Charlie Musselwhite and Frayser Boy.

Cleveland also boasts a hospital and a 3,300-student university, Delta State, home of the Delta Music Institute, which teaches the creative and business areas of music.

“I think the blues is beginning to play a lot bigger role in the economic development of this area,” Tricia Walker, who heads the institute, said. “Just like Nashville realized decades ago that country music was a great economic driver for their city, same thing with Mississippi and Bolivar County.”

A 2014 economic analysis stressed the need for more hotels to accommodate Delta State’s homecoming weekend, blues festivals and Grammy events. Trump’s company was not the only one interested in tapping into the market — another firm plans to break ground later this year on a high-end hotel along the downtown strip.

Judson Thigpen, executive director of the Cleveland-Bolivar County Chamber of Commerce, said the city has only about 280 rooms, less than what was needed for a recent baseball tournament that forced visitors to search for rooms a half mile away. “That’s money that we’re not getting in the town because we don’t have the capacity,” he said.

Local entrepreneurs Dinesh and Suresh Chawla now run a successful chain of midrange hotels, which they took over from their father, an Indian immigrant. Thirty years ago, V.K. Chawla called New York magnate Donald Trump out of the blue in search of investors. He received no money but lots of advice.

“Mr. Trump proceeded to explain to my father how to get the small-fry project off the ground,” Suresh Chawla said in June. “It’s an incredible testimony to how he can listen to something and in just a few seconds dissect it and come to what needs to be done.”

When his father was running for president, Donald Trump Jr. met the Chawla sons at a Republican fundraiser in Jackson, introduced by Gov. Phil Bryant.

Afterward, Suresh Chawla donated $50,000 to Republican candidates, including $27,700 to the Trump campaign. Eric Danziger, chief executive of Trump Hotels and an industry veteran, began considering the Cleveland project among a couple dozen nationwide for the company’s first ­Scion.

In June, the Chawlas joined Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump at Trump Tower to announce the Mississippi venture. The deal was pitched as a breakthrough for a state often ranked dead last as a place to work or go to school.

“This is a big thing for Mississippi. We’re usually 50th in every list there is,” Suresh Chawla said at the announcement.

Since then, the press has not been kind, particularly a Bloomberg story associating the Mississippi projects with a failed development, Trump Farallon Estates at Cap Cana, in the Dominican Republic.

“We are very hesitant to work with reporters at this point — everything we say, explain, do — is taken out of context,” Dinesh Chawla wrote in an email. “It’s frustrating that we seem to be used as pawns in a game.” He and his brother declined further ­comment.

Construction on the Scion hotel paused late this summer as the Chawlas reconsidered the original plantation design, a decision they haven’t addressed publicly. They came up with a new plan that will incorporate more restaurants, a clubhouse and convention space, according to the Trump Organization. In mid-September windows and siding on the main building had been added, and furniture was being delivered, but construction hadn’t restarted.

According to the Trump Organization, the American Idea brands will launch at the three older Chawla-owned mid-scale hotels in the area. Bolivar County Supervisor Donny Whitten said the hotels “a lot of times are running at 90 to 100 percent occupancy” because of crowded university and music events.

Two are Comfort Inns, in Cleveland and Clarksdale, on the side of the highway and surrounded by strip malls and gas stations. The third is a Rodeway Inn in Greenville, across the street from the Trop Casino and separated by a levee where local residents take power walks. The area nearby is pockmarked with empty and boarded-up buildings.

“I don’t support [Trump]. I wouldn’t go to his hotel unless I had to. But I don’t blame other people if they do,” said Shanna Ray, 31, a medical lab technician on a stop during her walk.

Prospects for success

Skepticism remains that the hotels will succeed financially, particularly if blacks avoid them. Bolivar County is 64 percent black, and the railroad tracks that cut through the center of Cleveland, despite being out of use and mostly buried, still separate the more prosperous white areas from black neighborhoods.

Thomas Morris Sr., a local pastor active in the black community, said he would advise people to stay elsewhere. “Your choice will depend on how principled you are,” he said.

“I think if the Trumps’ bottom-line profits for a hotel in the Mississippi Delta are predicated on black people coming and spending money, I think they are in serious trouble,” said Rep. Thompson.

Some of the plans may yet get tripped up in the heated litigation and ethical controversies surrounding the Trump Organization. For instance, the Chawlas have repeatedly expressed interest in having music students from Delta State produce or perform shows at the hotel.

But attorneys general from Maryland and the District of Columbia have challenged Trump in one pending emoluments lawsuit, and some legal scholars say benefiting from a publicly funded university qualifies as a violation.

Don Allan Mitchell, chair of languages and literature at Delta State, calls the hotels “one of those opportunities that I’m not sure we could pass up but at the same time it does bring with it the political baggage.”

He said he hoped the politics wouldn’t destroy something Cleveland needs.

“We’re enough of a community where we can have this civil conversation,” he said. “We can agree to disagree without screaming at one another. Or getting on Twitter.”

Brown, the local bluesman, spends his days fixing car upholstery in a workshop that is a hodgepodge of instruments and dismantled car seats.

He says he does not support Trump personally. His allegiance is to the music he and his band, Jake and the Pearl Street Jumpers, have played since the 1970s.

“I feel good about [the hotel],” he said. “It will bring a lot of attention to the blues.”