By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
In addition to providing the hotel, at Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street NW, Stafford plans a prayer breakfast there the morning of the 19th -- Martin Luther King Jr. Day -- and a luncheon that day.
The next day, Inauguration Day, a youth ball is planned at the hotel, as well as a "People's Inaugural Ball."
Stafford said he wants at least 30 percent of those staying in his rooms and participating in the events to be disadvantaged or needy in some way. The remaining participants could be people from sponsoring foundations, contributing companies or volunteers.
He said he began thinking about the project in March. He voted for Obama, and records show he contributed $4,600 to his campaign. Stafford, a retired Air Force officer, noted that he does not agree with all of Obama's positions.
Still, he concluded that Obama could win the election and realized that the inauguration would be "a transition in history, if you will . . . and everyone should be included."
Stafford, who is black, said he views the election of the nation's first African American president as a moment that promises a renewed emphasis on the needs of people.
He said he is working with the National Urban League and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the country's premier black-oriented think tank, and will talk to the military services to help select the people to invite.
"We intend to reach out to some of the hospitals, some of the homeless shelters, some of the other social agencies who then will host these individuals, be responsible for these individuals coming in," he said.
"We'll provide the venue. We'll provide all the amenities and those type of things," he said. The partnering organizations, such as the Urban League, will be allocated a certain number of rooms for people they help select. "The Urban League will be responsible for their safety, their security, for bringing them in to Washington," he said.
"There will be those who are distressed and underserved mingling with people who aren't so," he said. The needy will be "our honored guests. That's who inspire us."
He wants gowns and tuxedos to be provided, and has hired beauticians "to make it special for these people coming in," he said.
Stafford grew up in Mount Holly, N.J., across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, where his father was a minister at the Second Baptist Church. He served for many years in the Air Force, where he was an air traffic controller, and said he gets chills when he hears the national anthem.
His company, which has been through hard times and good times, has 475 employees and expected revenue of $150 million this year, he said. Stafford founded it in the late 1980s. The firm did an array of work for the likes of NASA, almost went bust in the 1990s, recovered and began specializing in training and weapons simulation devices for the military. It now provides systems that use lasers to simulate the effects of gunfire during exercises and recently supplied the military with simulated makeshift bombs that soldiers can use to train.
Stafford is a tall man with graying hair who wears cuff links, peers over gold-rimmed glasses and still recalls the kindness of a tough high school homeroom teacher who once took him home for dinner. "He invested in me," he said.
Stafford attends Alexandria's Alfred Street Baptist Church, one of the oldest African American churches in the country.
His undertaking will be complex.
"It will definitely be a challenge," Ralph B. Everett, president of the D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said in an e-mail. "But if anyone can make this happen, it's Earl Stafford. . . . We are determined to do everything possible to help Earl achieve his vision."
Stafford said he began shopping around for a suitable inauguration venue months ago. He tried the Newseum and the Willard Hotel, and was considering a smaller suite at the Hay Adams Hotel when he read a newspaper story about the Marriott's package. "The price tag was pretty stiff, but we felt that that's what the Lord would have us to do," he said.
"There's a saying in the Bible," he said. "To whom much is given, much is required."
To learn more about the Stafford Foundation visit www.thestaffordfoundation.org.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.