Middleburg prepares for a posh newcomer

August 19, 2013

The question comes up at least five times a week, says Dwight Grant, sitting in the sunny barbershop where his clients come to get their hair styled and their ears filled with the latest Middleburg gossip. ¶ “Everyone wants to know, what do you think of Salamander?” Grant says. ¶ Middleburg, a picturesque town in the heart of Virginia’s horse country, is readying for the Aug. 29 opening of the long-awaited Salamander Resort and Spa. The 168-room luxury hotel — built by Sheila Johnson, Black Entertainment Television co-founder — will open its doors next week after more than a decade of planning, debate and delays. ¶ In a community of less than 700 people, the arrival of what’s widely reported to be a $130 million luxury complex, designed to lure high-end leisure lovers and corporate power players, has drawn a range of strong reactions.

When Johnson purchased the 340-acre property in 2002 and announced her plans to build a five-star inn and spa, the Middleburg community was split between those who questioned the project and those who welcomed it: Would the development forever alter a cherished way of life in the historic, close-knit town? Or would it offer a needed economic boon?

On a typical Saturday night at one of Middleburg’s downtown restaurants, many of the diners know one another, Grant says. He’s heard people voice concern about how the proximity of the hotel — a seven-minute walk away — might change that dynamic.

But as a business owner, Grant sees the benefits. “It’s hard to attract people from the outside into this community,” he says. “Sheila Johnson is changing that.”

Grant, 35, grew up in Middleburg and has owned the Mens Grooming Room on Washington Street for two years.

“Middleburg is the very attractive woman in the room,” he says of his home town. “You don’t know how to approach her because she’s so attractive. . . . She might seem unattainable, or pretentious. But she’s someone who, deep down inside, wants to be perceived for who she is and not who you think she is.”

The community has a multifaceted culture, he says. There are descendants of old-money Southern families and descendants of those who worked as domestic help for old-money families. There are multimillion-dollar second homes and affordable housing developments where working-class families raise their kids.

Across that spectrum, Grant says, opinions about the resort are shared cautiously and quietly: “In this town, there’s a lot of accountability. What you say will get around.”

Grant takes barber-client privilege seriously. Lady Middleburg is private, and he won’t name her secrets.

“There are a lot of powerful, influential people in this town, who are entitled to their opinions,” he says. “I hear it all.”

He pauses, then smiles. “It comes down to this,” he says. “Change is hard. If people can’t articulate their fear, then it’s just fear of the unknown.”

A woman on a mission

The salamander: a creature famed for its mythical ability to walk through fire and emerge unscathed.

Sheila Johnson: one of the most high-profile entrepreneurs in the country; the first African American woman to become part-owner of three professional sports teams; a self-made billionaire known for her tenacity, philanthropy and diverse portfolio of business enterprises.

The symbol and the woman were united when Johnson, 64, bought her Middleburg farm in 1996. The property’s previous owner had named it “Salamander” after his code name while working with the French Resistance during World War II.

“The name really struck a chord with me, considering everything I’ve been through working with the [resort] project, and in my life in general,” Johnson says in a recent interview.

The quiet of Middleburg’s countryside offered solace and a chance to rebuild after Johnson’s divorce from Robert L. Johnson, with whom she co-founded BET, she says. It was soon after the split that a broker approached her about the property. Johnson walked the land “and, immediately, I knew what I needed to do with it,” she says. “Of course that started a firestorm.”

In the midst of that battle, Johnson acknowledged the challenge of coming to Middleburg as a newcomer, and an influential African American woman at that. Years later, she no longer feels those issues are at play.

“The majority of our community now definitely embraces the resort’s opening and, even for those few who are not supporters, I don’t believe my race and gender are factors of opposition,” Johnson says.

Johnson’s initial vision of a small inn was soon replaced by a plan for a sprawling, ultra-posh resort with world-class amenities, including an equestrian center, a top-of-the-line spa, hiking trails, tennis courts, swimming pools, private cabanas, luxurious guest rooms with panoramic views, fine dining, a wine bar, a culinary studio, corporate meeting spaces and the largest ballroom in Virginia horse country.

The resort is designed to blend flawlessly into its surroundings, says Prem Devadas, president of Salamander Hospitality, Johnson’s company. The architectural design is traditional to the region, with steep-slope roofs, stone walls, hand-plied stucco and wooden floors designed to creak and groan as if they were centuries old.

“Everything is art,” Devadas says. “There has not been anything like this developed in this part of the country.”

Inside the sunny entrance, no check-in desk is immediately visible. This hotel doesn’t want to feel like one. Its goal is to evoke the atmosphere of a classic Virginia estate, inviting visitors to imagine that they are guests at a residential retreat like the one that President John F. Kennedy and his wife built nearby in the 1960s. The ground floor flows like a home, with a library, a billiard room and a living room with a 100,000 square-foot lawn outside the massive windows.

The sense of indulgence is overwhelming, the level of detail meticulous. The spacious guest rooms — starting at $475 per night during peak season and $275 in the offseason — have large flat-screen TVs, stone balconies and pedestal bathtubs. In the spa downstairs, a 14-foot ceramic steam room will feature delicate aromas that will change with the seasons.

Even in the “events wing” — where corporate executives will hold board meetings, and brides with sizable wedding budgets will host their nuptials — every element of design is deliberate. On a recent tour of the property, Devadas gestures toward the elegant carpeting, patterned with soft brown branches sprouting large crimson blossoms.

“All of the stems originate by the windows, so the flowers appear to grow from the source of light,” he says proudly.

The resort will be the crown jewel in Johnson’s growing hospitality empire, which includes luxury properties along the East Coast.

But not everyone in Middleburg was on board with the project when Johnson first proposed it. At public hearings, some residents and environmental activists vehemently protested, claiming the hotel would transform the atmosphere of the historic village and open the area to further development. There were worries about the impact of traffic and transient visitors, a corporate presence in a town long defined by small, family-run businesses.

But local officials were persuaded by the economic benefits, and they ultimately approved the project. The resort is projected to provide about $1 million in annual funding to the town. Johnson’s company also agreed to foot the bill for a new wastewater treatment plant and water treatment facility, large enough to meet the needs of the resort.

After the recession hit, making the resort’s target clientele less likely to splurge on indulgent getaways, the opening — originally planned for spring 2010 — was postponed.

Now, with the opening just days away, Johnson says the resort will give the town something it desperately needs: economic stability.

Still, she knows that some minds won’t be changed. Her critics “are children from very wealthy families, and they’ve lived one way of life,” she says. “When a place has been the same for almost 100 years, it’s tough on some of them.”

But like it or not, she says, her business is here to stay.

“We are part of the town. I am a retailer just like everybody else,” she says. “We are all in this sandbox together.”

‘Growing pains’

The opening of the resort will not be the first time Middleburg has drawn outside attention, says Mayor Betsy Davis.

When the Kennedys built their country home in Middleburg, the streets filled with people who came to catch a glimpse of the glamorous first family. Today, TV film crews and celebrities visit from time to time, trailed by fans and entourages.

“But those things aren’t planned; they just kind of happen,” Davis says.

Salamander, by contrast, has been in the works for so many years that the anticipation has taken on a life of its own.

“It’s been building up for so long,” Davis says. “There’s a sense of, ‘What’s going to happen?’ ”

Davis thinks the perks — including jobs for about 300 residents at the resort and its affiliated retail shop and local market in town — will outweigh the concerns, which are “just growing pains,” she says.

Dee Dee Hubbard, who has lived in Middleburg for 30 years and for a decade was editor of the monthly publication the Middleburg Eccentric, says the initial furor over the resort has long since eased.

“There’s always going to be a few people who aren’t happy,” but then again, this is a place where the installation of the town’s only traffic signal ruffled feathers, Hubbard says. “It took two years for everybody to stop blowing through the stoplight.”

Hubbard also says that Johnson’s company has been supportive of local businesses, a sentiment echoed by Scott Stine, who runs the Upper Crust bakery on Pendleton Street along with his father, Jim Stine. Scott Stine says employees of Johnson’s company are already regular patrons.

“They’ve been great to us,” he says. “It’s all going to be good with Salamander.”

But the bakery has also felt the impact of changes made in anticipation of the resort’s opening. Earlier this summer, on the chalkboard signs by the bakery’s front door, Jim Stine wrote despondent messages about the loss of two parking spots just outside.

“They have made this day one of the saddest of my life,” he wrote of the town officials who made the decision.

The location of the parking spaces posed a safety hazard, Davis says, one that needed to be addressed for years. It’s the sort of issue that can long go unnoticed in a little village — until a sleepy side street becomes the main entrance for a multimillion-dollar hotel and spa.

An infusion of visitors is necessary for Middleburg to thrive, the mayor says. “It’s kind of a swap — you give up some of your quiet, peaceful town to add a little more people on the streets.”

But Paul McMahon, a real estate agent in Middleburg for 35 years, says he worries about the added traffic. And he questions whether the resort will bring additional visitors into town at all, given the amenities, fine dining and retail choices the resort has.

“I don’t think a lot of those people are going to walk from those rooms, when they’re spending what they’re spending to stay there, and come in and experience the town,” he says. “I hope I’m wrong.”

In the weeks before the opening, construction and design crews were still at work on the finishing touches outside the resort. Vibrant flowers were planted in stone courtyards. The wooden paddock fences would soon be painted black. Johnson’s framed photography was mounted in guest rooms.

At the end of the resort’s winding driveway, Pendleton Street was quiet, absent the guests — visiting chefs, executives from Fortune 500 companies, global business leaders, politicians, writers, policymakers, philanthropists — who will soon flow to and from the property.

And Johnson hopes local residents will visit, too. The resort is an asset for the community to enjoy, she says.

“We are not here to change the way of life,” Johnson says of the town. “This is about bringing life . . . to the change that’s already happening.”

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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