Police matter, dissolution of alliance with Trump organization behind him
By JACK WEATHERLY
Dinesh Chawla is looking to the future. Not the recent past.
That is understandable, given the turn of events in the past year for the man who is looking forward to the opening of the Lyric Hotel in Cleveland.
The luxury hotel, which will be a part of the Ascend Hotel Collection, the top brand in the Choice Hotels group, will open in late July in the 17-acre West End District, Chawla confirmed in a telephone interview on Monday.
But last August something happened to Chawla that was totally out of sync with his public image.
Chawla was arrested in Memphis on charges of felony theft of luggage at the Memphis International Airport.
Those charges were dropped “before Thanksgiving,” Chawla said. And his record has been expunged, he said.
Chawla said that an inordinate number of news stories were published and telecast about the incident, because he and his brother, Suresh Chawla, had entered into an agreement with President Donald Trump’s sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, on the Lyric, which was at that time was to be named The Scion, the first in a projected chain of luxury hotels.
The agreement was dissolved in early 2019 after the Trump Organization decided to drop the venture, along with one to create a mid-market chain called American Idea, in which the Chawlas were also to participate, starting with conversion of three of their 18 hotels in the Delta.
The Trumps praised the Chawlas and said the decision was strictly a reaction to politically motivated opposition to the plans for both chains.
The New York Times reported at the time of the arrest that police records showed that “Mr. Chawla told an officer ‘that he knows stealing luggage is wrong, but he does it for the thrill and excitement.’”
Chawla on Monday would not discuss the case which he said does not exist as it was dismissed “with prejudice,” meaning it cannot be brought up again based on the alleged facts as they stood – but he did say that he decided to undergo psychiatric counseling. “I got what I think is a clean bill of health,” he said.
“I did express remorse. I did not express guilt for what they said I did.”
“I deny that the charges were accurate and that the quote that was attributed to me was ever said” in the context of the news reports.
The Chawla brothers announced a little more than a month after the Memphis incident that they had divided up their lodging properties.
That had been in the works since 2018, Dinesh Chawla said. “I’ve got emails to prove it,” he said. His brother wanted to concentrate Delta properties, whereas Dinesh wanted to develop big full-service properties across the country, a plan he still wants to pursue after the Lyric is launched and the coronavirus pandemic has released its grip on the nation’s economy.
“My brother is very happy in the Delta,” he said.
He said that perception that the division of property was a result of the Memphis arrest is wrong. He effusively praised his brother for being at his side throughout all of the turmoil and aftermath.
“Nobody could’ve been more helpful than my brother. The guy has knocked himself out.”
The brothers now jointly operate five properties in Cleveland, said Dinesh, who lives in that city, with the exception of the Lyric, with Suresh handling the balance of 10 elsewhere in the Delta.
Top management, chef and culinary staff and marketing specialists are in place and the Lyric is about 95 percent complete, he said.
The $20 million project, which was started before the Trump chapter began, has undergone revisions, in part due to the vision that the Trump Organization had for it. The Chawlas financed the project and qualified for a $6 million state tax rebate upon completion and approval of the project. The Trump Organization was to manage and market the property, along with the American Idea chain.
“I feel like I was a real-life apprentice,” he said, referring to the president’s former television show. “I got to see how big shots work, how you put deals together, how you organize your property development.”
“I got to work at a level that I could not imagine.” He said he felt like Rocky Balboa, the club fighter portrayed by Sylvester Stallone in the movie, who got a shot at the world heavyweight boxing championship.
The Chawla family’s story does have a Hollywood feel. The brothers’ father, V.K. Chawla, emigrated with his family to Canada from India, then to the Mississippi Delta.
He wanted to build a motel. After being turned down by about 50 banks, he wrote a letter to Donald Trump Sr. in 1988 for help in building the motel in Greenwood.
Trump telephoned the elder Chawla at his Greenwood convenience store and suggested that he apply for a minority Small Business Administration loan, which he successfully did.
A 2016 article in the Mississippi Business Journal about the Chawlas’ growing chain — including its latest and biggest project and Trump’s phone call to V.K. Chawla – caught the eye of someone in the Trump organization.
The article stated that the property initially was to be called the Lyric Hotel and was expected to cost about $8 million but grew to $15 million after candidate Donald Trump – in a meeting orchestrated by then-Gov. Phil Bryant during a reception related to a Jackson stop as part of a campaign swing – encouraged Suresh Chawla to “think grand.” The plan grew, and then some.
In June 2017, the Chawla brothers and the Trump brothers announced at Trump Tower in Manhattan plans for the Scion and American Idea chains.
Now, including dealing with the restrictions imposed on businesses due to the pandemic, which Dinesh Chawla said he hopes will have been lifted by the fall, the four-star hotel, once again called the Lyric, is actually easing toward its launch.
At full operation, the hotel will need a staff of 150 to 200, 70 percent of whom will be full-time, he said.
“We’re in no hurry,” he said.
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