Charleston could have had a Trump hotel in the middle of its tourist district.
Developer Michael Bennett recalled an unforgettable business offer from the future 45th president of the United States during a ceremony Thursday for the 179-room Hotel Bennett he's building next to Marion Square.
“I’m not going to talk any politics, but Donald Trump sent his son to see me two years ago," Bennett told a crowd that included former Mayor Joe Riley, construction and hospitality workers and dozens of community leaders.
Here's how the conversation with Donald Trump Jr. went, according to Bennett.
"What’s it going to take to for us to put our name on your hotel?" Trump Jr. asked.
“I mean no disrespect, but tell your father there’s not enough money in the world to put your name on my family’s hotel,” Bennett said he told him.
That sounds harsh, but Bennett said after the event that he didn't mean it that way.
"His son was as polite a man as you've ever met," he said. "If any of us raised a child like that ... he said, 'yes, sir' and no, sir.'"
But Bennett was not about to sell what he views as his family's legacy.
“This hotel is named not after me," he said. "This hotel is named after my mother and father.”
His late father shined shoes in downtown Charleston during the Great Depression. His mother, Virginia, was born on America Street, worked downtown and was the inspiration for Virginia's Restaurant on King Street. Now 95, she sat at a table as he spoke.
“This hotel is more than just a hotel to me," Bennett said. “It’s not just an investment. It’s more than that. It’s our family’s personal stake in the ground.”
Bennett said his hotel is the biggest private development in the history of Charleston and will become the city's most luxurious lodging.
Salamander Hotels & Resorts will manage the property.
"We are really committed to this community and committed to this hotel in getting it done and becoming the finest hotel in the country," Salamander CEO Sheila Johnson said during the ceremony.
Salamander executive Prem Devadas, who helped spearhead the development of The Sanctuary hotel while running Kiawah Island Golf Resort, said he expects Hotel Bennett to become the firm's flagship property, with its stunning rooftop views of Marion Square and the city.
"What Hotel Bennett is going to offer can't be replicated anywhere else in the country," Devadas said. "You only see it in places like Europe."
The purpose of Thursday's gathering was a "topping-off ceremony," a construction industry ritual that's usually held when the last structural beam is put in place, often on the top of a new building. In this case, it was also a chance for project managers to thank the 168 workers from Balfour Beatty Construction with a meal and raffle prizes. The big crane that has swung over the site for months is expected to come down next week.
The nine-story hotel is scheduled to open in the fall. One of its unusual amenities is an underground parking garage for 100 cars. With Charleston’s high water table, it required some elaborate waterproofing to pull off, but it could set the example for other projects in the city, according to senior project manager Tim Spando.
The hotel has been in the works for more than two decades and comes at a time when Upper King Street, the stretch north of Calhoun Street, is undergoing extensive revitalization.
Bennett bought the site of the former Charleston County Library in 1994 but couldn’t start construction until spring 2015. The project was put on hold after preservation groups challenged the city’s authority to grant a height variance. The dispute was resolved after a ruling from the highest court in South Carolina.
“Not many hotels in America have to go to the Supreme Court to get approved,” Bennett said.