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When Sheila Johnson proposed a luxury resort in Middleburg, some people fought it, fearing it would overwhelm the town. Will Salamander Resort and Spa—opening August 29—revitalize the area as Johnson hopes?

Sheila Johnson at her home, the inspiration for Salamander Resort & Spa. Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

In Britain, it’s increasingly common for the landed gentry to recast ancestral homes as grand hotels, not only to preserve the estate but—ideally—to kick-start the local economy with tourism, agribusiness, and the arts.

Sheila Johnson hopes just that for Middleburg, where this month she opens the 168-room Salamander Resort & Spa, 50 miles west of DC. Capitalizing on serene landscapes and the area’s rich sporting history, features include carriage rides, falconry, and weekend mornings replete with fox hunters breakfasting on the terrace, their mounts tethered nearby.

In other words, a country lifestyle, which some think is not Johnson’s to sell. After a five-year slugfest over permits and zoning with locals who feared that the $100-million-plus luxury resort on 340 acres might overwhelm the 0.6-square-mile, 673-person town, Johnson won. Then, with construction 70 percent complete, the 2009 recession halted progress, causing tongues to wag again about whether it would ever open.

For Johnson, 64, the past 15 years have been a series of personal and professional crises and triumphs. The salamander isn’t just a stylish moniker to her: As a creature famed for regenerating lost limbs, it symbolizes perseverance.

A frank, unapologetic businesswoman, artist, and philanthropist, she might seem an unlikely booster for a little town known for horses and field sports. But since moving here in 1996, Johnson—number nine on Forbes magazine’s list of the richest African-Americans—has been generous: more than $7.5 million to the Hill School, a private kindergarten-through-eighth-grade academy that her children attended; a grand fundraiser for the Piedmont Environmental Council, which promotes responsible land use; and a $100,000 gift to the Windy Hill Foundation, which builds tasteful low-cost housing in a town where rent is pricey.

There are other tokens as well: One Halloween she handed out candy and stuffed pandas in Mystics jerseys (she co-owns the WNBA team) in front of her newly opened cafe, Market Salamander. She walked in the fabulously quaint Middleburg Christmas parade—a tradition dating to the 1950s and famous for its Corgi Corps—dressed in a sweeping gown fit for a Broadway stage as Glinda the Good Witch, alongside her husband, William T. Newman, who was dressed as the Wizard of Oz. (The year before, Johnson says, she anonymously donned a gingerbread-man suit and was mauled by children.)

Johnson—who’s never been shy about giving to this staid, charming town—considers Salamander Resort & Spa her biggest gift yet. “What I am doing to the town is I am making it a lot better. What the naysayers don’t understand is that $1 million is going to the town to keep this town alive,” says Johnson, speaking of tax dollars estimated to flow from the resort to town coffers. “You see storefronts closing—there’s no reason to come here unless it’s a destination. I think over the years it will bear itself out.

“I’m trying to breathe some life into this area, and I think it is going to work.”

Whether Middleburg wants her help, though, is debatable.

Anyone in Washington who hasn’t heard of Sheila Johnson isn’t listening very closely. A classically trained violinist, she taught at Sidwell Friends School in the ’70s, eventually founding her own youth orchestra, which was handpicked by Queen Noor to perform in Jordan, where Johnson later consulted on a national music conservatory.

In the evenings, she and then-husband Robert Johnson, a lobbyist for the National Cable Television Association, were cooking up plans for a cable network they would call Black Entertainment Television, or BET.

“It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Johnson, a striking woman with glowing skin who looks stylish even in sensible shoes. By now it’s legend: Bob Johnson took a proposal for a senior citizens’ cable network, substituted “African-American” throughout, and showed it to John Malone, CEO of Tele-Communications Inc. With Malone’s $500,000 seed, BET debuted in 1980. The schedule eventually featured, among other things, sports from predominantly black colleges and gospel and soul music shows.

“I had a front-row seat on that ride—it started out as a channel and ended up as a brand,” says Jefferi Lee, who in 1982 was BET’s sixth employee and is now general manager at WHUT-TV, the Howard University station. (Bob Johnson didn’t respond to interview requests.) BET spawned restaurants, magazines, and an online presence. At the dawn of music videos, African-American artists found airtime on BET.

In its nascent days, urban rap made its mark with gritty, graphic depictions of ghetto life, drugs, and sex. “What disturbed me was the language and the way young girls were portrayed,” Johnson says. “If you turn the volume down, it looks like pornography. I rebelled against it, and I think it might have caused a little bit of a rift.”

Johnson pioneered programming like Teen Summit, featuring young African-Americans discussing such issues as bullying, respect, and teen pregnancy. Debuting in 1989, it had an 11-year run that garnered Emmy and CableACE awards.

“Bob was at the helm of the company, but Sheila was the conscience,” says Lee, who left BET in 1998. “There were several times I would get calls from both of them—they had opposing views, and I was in the middle. Bob was more focused on business.”

BET was the first African-American-owned company to go public, in a 1991 New York Stock Exchange initial public offering. But instead of stability, the heady combination of power and money that accompanied success caused the couple to splinter. In 1999, Bob Johnson fired his wife. Amid allegations of his infidelity, their marriage was also at risk. They divorced in 2002.

• • •

In 1996, as Johnson’s world was unraveling, she came to Middleburg, pulled by her daughter’s passion for horses. Paige Johnson, born in 1986, has been riding since childhood. Her mother is more than just supportive—she chaired the Washington International Horse Show for three years.

Salamander Farm’s 169 acres, lined with stone walls and board fencing with vistas of the Blue Ridge, offered plenty of room for 27 horses, stables, and an indoor riding ring nearly the size of a regulation hockey arena. Johnson gutted the little house, expanding it to the tune of $7 million, with a pool, outdoor kitchen, and plenty of entertaining space. In 1996, Johnson uprooted Paige and her brother, Brett, three years younger, from Sidwell Friends and put them in the Hill School.

“They didn’t understand why at the time,” says Johnson, who also brought her now 89-year-old mother to live on the farm. “But I loved the intimacy of the [Hill] school and I needed the support. I had to cut the umbilical cord.”

Johnson joined the board of the elite 200-student academy and immediately gave $300,000 to construct a music room for the strings program—which had already been using a textbook she’d edited while an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. She still receives royalties from it, a trickle in her revenue: In 2001 Viacom bought BET, and the Johnsons received $1.3 billion. Assets and real estate were equitably split in the divorce.

Inside Sheila Johnson’s Salamander Resort & Spa

The luxury hotel has been in planning for more than a decade.

“I could have taken my money, sat back, partied, become a social climber; instead, with lots of prayer and lots of therapy—and I have no problem saying that—I was able to move forward,” says Johnson, who gave the Hill School the $5.2-million Sheila C. Johnson Performing Arts Center, then endowed it for $2 million more.

Johnson retained Salamander Farm—named by a previous owner, Bruce Sundlun, a former governor of Rhode Island and a pilot in the US Army Air Corps during World War II. His code name was Salamander.Johnson also owns Salamander South, a training facility in Wellington, Florida, a town where the horse set goes for the winter show season.

“Salamanders can walk through fire and come through alive—if you chop off their legs, they regenerate,” says Johnson, sitting in her office amid piles of her own photography, framed and ready to hang in guest rooms at her resort, as well as modal scarves imprinted with her photos.

Empowerment and creativity thread through Johnson’s post-BET endeavors: She says she’s creating a lifestyle brand that she feels will make the world more just and enjoyable.

Along with Salamander Hotels & Resorts, which owns and/or manages four resorts, she has a line of luxury linens and is co-owner of ProJet Aviation, an aircraft-management company. As a partner in Monumental Sports & Entertainment, she is the only female African-American co-owner of three sports teams: the Mystics, the Capitals, and the Wizards. She has produced several social-justice documentaries and is executive producer of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a feature film based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American White House butler who served eight Presidents. She sits on numerous boards and is magnanimous with money and ideas in both very public venues and very private gestures.

Johnson’s ventures—from aviation and hospitality to films and basketball—may seem to have no logical business connection. Detractors call this scattershot approach a “flavor of the week” investment strategy, and her instincts haven’t always been foolproof, especially just after her divorce, when she ponied up cash for failures in areas from publishing to real estate.

“I never have a plan—I know what I want to do but as doors open you have to know when to walk through them and that is how I live my life,” says Johnson. “I believe in my instincts.”

“She’s a driven person,” says Newman, Johnson’s second husband. “She sees the beauty in things, and if she thinks she can make a difference, she makes it happen.”

Sandy Ain of Ain & Bank, who is general counsel to Johnson, agrees: “The challenge is restraining her. She gets impatient with anything that interferes with her goals.”

Sheila Johnson. Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

In 2002, as Johnson’s divorce was being finalized, she saw a 340-acre parcel of land bordering Middleburg, its brambled woods and pastures of tall grass crisscrossed by horse trails, a crumbling springhouse the only sign of previous habitation. It was once the estate of W. Averell Harriman—a former governor of New York and a protégé of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s—and his wife, Pamela, a Democratic powerbroker in her own right.

“I was trying to find some way to become the author again of my own destiny. I can’t explain it, but I walked up there and a light bulb went off. And that is what got me into the hospitality business,” she says.

Some local residents, worried that developers would buy the tract, were initially excited when Johnson paid $7 million for the parcel.

In the boom market, Loudoun County led the country in churning out building permits. Route 50, Middleburg’s main drag, was once a stagecoach route connecting Winchester to Alexandria; the town is so named because it was the middle of the journey, and its oldest hotel, the Red Fox Inn, is said to be among the nation’s oldest. Now the two-lane road is clogged by traffic created by new shopping centers and housing developments east of Route 15.

People love Middleburg because it’s a personal, seemingly uncomplicated place in an increasingly complex world. But holding onto that quality has become yeoman’s work: The town council continually battles unwanted growth. Surrounding the town are many large estates on hundreds of acres. As wealthy landowners die, their families—who may not have the luxury to farm, raise cattle, and fox-hunt as “gentlemen farmers”—must sell.

Johnson’s yen for farmland runs deep. She was born in 1949 in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, where her physician dad, George Crump, stitched up coal miners after bar brawls on payday. It wasn’t easy for a black neurosurgeon to work, so the family moved often: In Louisville, she watched horses run behind the old Churchill Downs. When her father served in the Korean War, the family lived in Charleston, West Virginia; in stark contrast to life in segregated cities, that time of picking cherries, playing under silos, and working in the garden was idyllic for her.

“I think that is why I am here now,” Johnson says. Her 14th move was to Maywood, Illinois, in fifth grade. Her father became chief of staff at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital, her mother, Marie, its accountant. Johnson’s brother, George, four years younger, lives in Maywood today. She began studying violin—sparked by a father who played piano for hours after work to blow off steam—and music began to shape her world.

“It’s calming, and more than anything it really developed a foundation,” she says. “Focus, organization, communication, listening, and discipline—these five things music taught me I’ve applied to everything I’ve done.”

She received a scholarship to study music education at the University of Illinois in 1966. Before the introduction of Title IX, she was kept from competitive sports in high school, she began cheerleading; at Illinois she became the university’s first black cheerleader.

“Because of my skin color, I was not accepted with African-American students because they thought my skin was too white, and not accepted by white students because I was African-American,” Johnson says. She remembers when, at the height of the black-power movement, the university’s 400 African-American students took over the student union. “I was the only one who didn’t go. I didn’t understand why we had to be in this camp or in that camp. I lived in this vacuum with my violin.”

• • •

Johnson also didn’t understand why people in Middleburg resisted her proposed resort, which she considered a boon to the town.

“I did consistently vote against Salamander Inn because I thought it would take away the small town feeling and change Middleburg; there were many people who were not in favor of it because of those reasons,” says Catherine “Bundles” Murdock, a member of the Middleburg Town Council since 2004.

“The Harriman tract had acreage in town, so a small inn in town sounded rather nice, but it got way off track,” says Doug Larson, vice president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, whose galas Johnson once hosted. One of the first letters to the town council about the Salamander development called it a “battle,” and so it became. Johnson felt the opposition deeply.

“It’s not like I kept it to myself,” Johnson says. “I realized the town needed help. I also recognized that the racial issues were still here. I had a groundbreaking, and the ‘Don’t BET Middleburg’ signs came out. My daughter was getting her nails done, and a woman attacked her: ‘What is your mother trying to do? She’s trying to change us.’ It scared me.”

After an uneasy start, she made changes in the management team and hired Prem Devadas, now president of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, from the Sanctuary at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, a development that also stirred local opposition. Devadas grew up in the Washington area, and as a young man had brought his date to Middleburg in his convertible to impress her. He immediately understood the project’s lure. Protest reignited when Johnson and Devadas came back to the council requesting 40 percent more guest rooms. “At that time, hospitality was hot and costs were high—we needed more rooms to make it financially feasible,” Devadas says.

The project grew from a 58-room inn to a 168-room resort with a 23,500-square-foot spa. “It’s important—and so many people have said this—this was not against Sheila Johnson, it was against a resort of this size,” says Murdock, who retired from the US State Department in 1989 as deputy chief of protocol. “When she was first looking at the property, she was looking at 50 rooms, and if it had stayed that way there wouldn’t have been the backlash.”

Of the 340 total acres, 88 have been annexed to the town, and Salamander has development rights for commercial space and more than 49 luxury homes, cottages, and condo units. Some 200 acres are in conservation easement and can’t be developed. Salamander shored up the town’s failing wastewater system with a $10-million wastewater facility and a $3-million water-treatment plant.

But by the time the negotiations were complete and the shell of the building up, the recession loomed and projections for luxury-hotel occupancy tanked. Opponents rejoiced when Johnson, heeding advisers, halted construction.

“It was the hardest pill to swallow—I must have drunk a whole bottle of wine that night,” Johnson says, her head in her hands just remembering. “I remember at the Mystics game, President Obama said, ‘How are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m not doing well—this recession is killing me.’ He said, ‘I thought you would do well,’ and I said, ‘You don’t understand—this is hitting everyone. I have to protect my wealth, and if I move forward I will fail.’ ”

• • •

With her showpiece a shell looming on the outskirts of Middleburg, visible from town, Johnson was far from idle. One activity that had become particularly important was her role as global ambassador for CARE, an organization that helps empower women to fight poverty.

Dale Mott, then with CARE and now director of development at the Phillips Collection, got Johnson involved in CARE in 2004; he estimates her total investment in the organization at nearly $7 million. But to Johnson the return was invaluable.

“It was part of my therapy—to see women who were suffering way beyond what I had gone through: gender-based violence, AIDS, rape, living on less than a dollar day, lack of education,” says Johnson, who sat in the women’s huts, listening to them tell stories while they nursed their babies. “I was crying all the time, letting out so much pain.”

Their stories inspired A Powerful Noise, a documentary about three women who turned their lives around; it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008. Over the years, Johnson has backed several films, starting with Kicking It, about a soccer league for homeless people.

“She learned everything on the front lines of the issues,” says Susan Koch, the director of Kicking It, who is working on another Johnson-instigated project, Music Lessons, about a music-therapy school run by former Hill School teacher Tom Sweitzer. “She didn’t just do the film; she sponsored the first women’s street-soccer league.” (Proceeds from the sale of Sheila Johnson Collection scarves, priced at $375, benefit the league, called the Lady Salamanders.)

Johnson was brought to Kicking It by coproducer Ted Leonsis, CEO of Monumental Sports, which owns the Mystics, the Capitals, the Wizards, and the Verizon Center. Johnson became managing partner of the Mystics in 2005. “She was passionate about sports, a woman, and African-American, the perfect blend,” says Leonsis, formerly president of AOL.

In 2006, she bought the Woodlands Inn, an 18-room plantation-style property in South Carolina, for $2 million. Just over $1 million later, it earned Forbes five-star and AAA five-diamond ratings in the accommodations and dining categories. Last year, Johnson sold it, thinking it too small for a portfolio that had expanded to include Innisbrook Resort, Hammock Beach Resort, and Reunion Resort, three Florida properties marketed under the Salamander Hotels & Resorts umbrella as the Grand Golf Resorts of Florida.

Golf came to the fore as well. Introduced to the game by friend Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State, Johnson is now on the executive committee of the United States Golf Association.

In 2011, Salamander ventured off-shore to manage Sanctuary Cap Cana, in the Dominican Republic, for absentee owners. “What a mistake,” says Johnson.

There are some business lessons she has learned the hard way. She no longer relies on headhunters but does her own recon. “There are people out there who are frauds, and they will spend your money.”

Sheila Johnson. Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

In 2002, she finalized her divorce from Bob Johnson in the Arlington courtroom of Chief Judge William Newman. After the 20-minute proceeding, she asked to approach the bench.

“Do you remember me?” she said. He did. The two had acted together in Ceremonies in Dark Old Men with Washington’s Negro Ensemble Company more than 30 years earlier. Johnson played a prostitute and he a rogue bootlegging son. They got to know each other during the play’s run, then fell out of touch.

Soon after her divorce, she sent him an invitation to the Washington International Horse Show gala. He accepted—and thought about bringing a date, until his mother told him that might not be a great idea.

“I slowly began to understand some of the things she had been through,” says Newman, who had never married. “Then one day the light went on, and I thought, ‘Wow—I really like this woman.’”

In 2005, they married in a celebration at Salamander Farm costing nearly $1 million. Elite wedding planner Preston Bailey turned riding arenas into a fairyland with 60,000 flowers and a 400-pound cake. The bride wore an ivory confection by designer Bob Mackie.

“I don’t know why I got so carried away,” Johnson giggles. “I was so in love and so happy, and I felt safe for the first time in my life—like a lot of the cobwebs had been cleared out.”

The Judge, as she calls Newman, still acts and is active in Arlington—he founded and now is president emeritus of the Arlington Community Foundation. He keeps a home in Arlington and presides over courtroom 10A, where Johnson surprised him with a 20th-anniversary celebration this past spring. Johnson comes in for games and events during the week; they weekend at Salamander and travel as their schedules allow.

Last summer, they were together on the Louisiana set of The Butler, starring Forest Whittaker and Oprah Winfrey, where Newman—who has an acting degree and played in TV soaps before law school—stretched his chops as a preacher in scenes with Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr.

Directed by Lee Daniels—who produced Monster’s Ball and Precious—and strewn with star power including Robin Williams, Mariah Carey, and Jane Fonda, The Butler project was brought to Johnson by the late Laura Ziskin, who produced the 2002 movie Spider-Man.

“I looked at Laura and I could tell she didn’t have much time,” Johnson says. (Ziskin died of breast cancer in 2011.) “She said, ‘This is a movie that has got to be made.’ ”

Johnson became executive producer, investing $2.5 million and raising more than $27 million to fund the film. Ziskin’s partner, Pam Williams, says the movie wouldn’t have been made without Johnson; the Weinstein Company has picked it up for distribution.

Also on the set last summer was son Brett, now 23, whose eponymous shoe-and-outerwear collection launches this fall. Daughter Paige, a professional equestrian, was married in May at the Ocean Club resort in the Bahamas to longtime beau Dudley Payne, a Warrenton native and scratch golfer who is a partner in an insurance company.

Johnson’s Middleburg resort wasn’t ready for Paige’s wedding, but in 2012 Junius Real Estate Partners became Johnson’s equity partner in Salamander Resort & Spa, and building started up again with new deadlines, schedules, and budgets, culminating in this month’s opening.

• • •

Curiosity over the resort’s opening this month seems to be overtaking controversy at this point. “The town will change fundamentally and forever in less than half a year,” a local newspaper, the Middleburg Eccentric, predictsof Salamander’s opening. It remains to be seen whether the resort will generate the kind of business it promises—or threatens, depending on whom you talk to. But many former detractors now hope for the best.

“People have accepted that it’s there and don’t think too much about it, but it’s a hell of a complex,” says Michael Morency, a former Piedmont Environmental Council board member who owns property in town. “I think when it opens, a lot of the old feelings will resurface. But it’s there, and I hope it succeeds.”

Murdock hopes Salamander Resort, now that it’s inextricably tied up with the future of Middleburg, will succeed as well. Traffic is already unsettling the pedestrian-friendly atmosphere and many locals no longer frequent town on the weekend, leaving it to tourists. The town itself is investing in a larger police force, and some economic development consulting.

“Its been voted on, it’s been built, if it is unsuccessful and sits in that field like a white elephant that doesn’t make sense,” says Murdock, though she says her friends—many from neighboring Fauquier County, where she is field secretary of the Orange County Hunt—mostly remain anti-Salamander. “The real story is two years from now.”

There are challenges ahead: The property’s $150 million price tag— this cost, Devadas estimates, includes the building of future homes and retail —is significantly higher than the per key cost ( industry slang for per room) of other luxury brands. The area’s employment scene doesn’t immediately provide the depth of talent needed for an enterprise of this level. And the question remains whether the resort, which capitalizes on Middleburg’s outdoor sporting life and will try to reflect local color by offering tailgates at the races and free breakfast to foxhunters, can remain full year-round.

Johnson is well aware that local coffee shop banter has her selling off quickly to the highest bidder, but says she has a lot of personal skin in this game. She declines to discuss numbers when it comes to her fortune, but does say she has much of it working for her.

“Sheila is more protective of Middleburg than anyone can imagine,” says lawyer Sandy Ain, whose law firm provides Johnson both corporate and personal counsel. “It’s cost her considerably more to do this right and ultimately be a good investment—this isn’t a flipper.”

It may be a few years before the true impact on Middleburg is known, but as opening day nears, Newman says they’re starting to feel a thaw in social relationships—and a recent announcement made even skeptical locals soften: The Middleburg Film Festival, a mini-Sundance, debuts in October with 15 movies to be screened at venues from the Hill School to the resort, along with parties at nearby Boxwood Estate Winery. Johnson’s filmmaker pal Susan Koch is executive director.

“Robert Redford was here, and I walked him up onto the property and he loved it,” said Johnson—who has been on the board of the Sundance Film Festival for five years—at a press conference announcing Middleburg’s festival last April. “We’re bringing sexy back to Middleburg.”

And that might be just the issue. Middleburg may not be quite ready for sexy.

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