The Benefactor of the Ball
Thursday, December 4, 2008
It was billed as the biggest, most eye-popping of the inauguration hotel packages: the JW Marriott's $1 million "build-your-own-ball" offer. You get 300 rooms, four suites, $200,000 worth of food and drink, and a primo site overlooking the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route.
And it was snapped up within hours of Barack Obama's election as president by a customer the hotel declined to identify.
This morning, the Marriott is scheduled to announce that the buyer is a Virginia businessman who wants to bring to the inauguration disadvantaged people, terminally ill patients, wounded soldiers and others down on their luck.
Earl W. Stafford, 60, of Fairfax County, the founder of a Centreville technology company who grew up as one of 12 children of a Baptist minister, said he will provide his guests lodging, food and special access, as well as beauticians, gowns and tuxedos, if necessary.
Stafford has paid the $1 million, a spokesman said, and is prepared to spend $600,000 more for a breakfast, a luncheon and two balls at the hotel. Stafford said he hopes to recoup some of the $600,000 from other sponsors, yet to be recruited.
"We wanted to . . . bless those who otherwise wouldn't have an opportunity to be a part of the great celebration, the inauguration and the festivities," he said in an interview yesterday. "Our objective is to bring in a cross-section of society -- those who are distressed, those who are terminally ill, those who are socially and economically disadvantaged, those veterans who are wounded and served our country."
Stafford said the idea was inspired by his deep religious faith and the good fortune that has come his way. The inauguration is an opportunity to remember the less fortunate and remind the country of its traditions of benevolence, he said.
"We've gotten away from those core values that made America great," he said yesterday at the headquarters of his company, Unitech, which provides weapons simulation systems to the military. "We just need to get back to caring about one another."
The initiative, in its early stages, comes amid hard economic times, when many in the Washington region are seeking ways to make money on the inauguration -- be it hotels charging sky-high rates or residents renting out homes and apartments.
Stafford said his guests, yet to be chosen, will come from across the country. They can watch the parade from a heated tent atop the Marriott's terrace, with terrific views and every comfort available.
"We're not charging a dime," Stafford said.
"The People's Inauguration," as Stafford calls it, is scheduled to unfold Jan. 18, 19 and 20, with lodging all three nights. He said the initiative will be funded through the family's nonprofit Stafford Foundation, created in 2002; this will be its first major enterprise.