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'Inaugural Project' gets a prime seat

A businessman has rented a D.C. hotel to invite people who would never get such a chance.

Earl W. Stafford, Virginia businessman, announces his plans for the "People's Inaugural Project."
Earl W. Stafford, Virginia businessman, announces his plans for the "People's Inaugural Project."Read moreAssociated Press

WASHINGTON - At the JW Marriott Hotel, $1 million will buy 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 yesterday.

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, the 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 were 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."

Separately, Obama's inaugural committee announced that, in a change from tradition, the entire length of the National Mall will be open to the public during the inauguration. The committee pledged to make Obama's inauguration "the most open and accessible in history," allowing those who can't get tickets to the swearing-in ceremony on the Capitol grounds to fill the mall.

In the past, parts of the mall have been closed off as a parade staging area. The National Park Service has said jumbo TV screens will line the mall to give visitors a glimpse of the ceremony.