Reaching for the stars: W.Va. billionaire Jim Justice's mission to restore the Greenbrier resort to glory
Sunday, March 6, 2011
LEWISBURG, W.Va. - Late on the night of Nov. 30, a man named Jim Justice walked into the Applebee's restaurant in this town in the southeastern corner of one of the poorest states in America. It was just up from the Walmart on Route 219 and hard by Interstate 64.
He had a few friends and family members with him, and a sheaf of papers in one hand. Justice, coach of the local high school's girls' basketball team, was celebrating a season-opening victory, an 81-43 blowout. The kitchen was closing, and the group hurried to order before sitting back to chat.
Justice is is off the charts in terms of size of human beings - he stands 6-foot-7 and weighs a good 350 pounds - and he looked the part of postgame coach: a shock of tousled white hair, slumped shoulders, loosened tie, dress shirt coming untucked under a rumpled blazer.
I was surprised to see him there for a couple of reasons.
One, although we'd spent the day talking, we'd made no plans to meet here after the game picking over $13.69 entrees.
Two, Justice is a 59-year-old billionaire, one of the wealthiest people in America, a West Virginia native who makes his money from corn, timber and coal. He coaches as a release for his competitive streak.
But the thing that made it truly, spectacularly odd was that the big man tucked in the tiny booth is the sole owner and proprietor of the Greenbrier resort, a few miles away in White Sulphur Springs.
That sprawling, 710-room, white-lace-and-petits-fours icon of American history has been a destination of presidents, celebrities and society darlings for more than 200 years.
He is the owner of every Dorothy Draper curtain, every columned portico, every glittering chandelier and every blade of grass on every golf course. He owns the millions of tiny tiles at the bottom of the heated indoor swimming pool and every 350-thread-count sheet on every bed. He owns every slot in every roulette wheel in the casino and every net on every tennis court.
The hotel has nine, plus room service! He could reserve a suite, order up champagne, step out on the balcony, savor the stars overhead and the glittering Jay Gatsby lights below, and everything all the way up to the ridge line of the mountains was his.