By Ronda Racha Penrice
The “biggest fight of my life,” says Sheila C. Johnson, wasn’t co-founding Black Entertainment Television or ending her 33-year marriage to Robert “Bob” Johnson, with whom she raised two children and a television network together.
It was getting zoning, planning and other local government permits to open a hotel and spa in the village of Middleburg, Virginia. While the hotel, which she called “The Salamander,” would create dozens of jobs and pay millions in property and other taxes, the village government fought her every step of the way.
Her famous name and hard-earned wealth didn’t give her any advantages. “None of that matters,” she told CNN, “As anAfrican-American, they didn’t want me to do this. It was the fight of my life. I’ve never been more frightened in my life.”
Certainly, Johnson had more credentials than any other developer or investor in that hamlet of fewer than 640 residents. Johnson says always “had an entrepreneurial spirit.” In high school, she earned money by playing her violin in small parties and, later, by giving private lessons. And she was tireless in building BET from a two-hour feature into a 24-hour cable channel.
She is a woman of firsts. She was one of first African-American woman billionaires. She is the first African American woman to own three professional sports teams in three different leagues—the NBA’s Washington Wizards (where she serves as both president and managing partner), the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.
And she is renowned leader in philanthropy. The Sheila C. Johnson Design School Center at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, where she serves on the Board of Governors, bears her name. At the Harvard Kennedy School, she endows the Sheila C. Johnson Leadership Fellowship to support emerging leaders primarily focused on erasing disparities in underserved African American communities.
As Johnson explained, “none of that mattered.”
Middleburg, founded in 1787, fashions itself the “Nation’s Horse and Hunt Capital.” It is renowned for steeple chases and fox hunts. It has 632 residents, according to the U.S. Census, and many of them are opposed to any change. While one out five Middleburg residents are African-American, they have little say over local government.
Johnson, who lived in town, wanted her hotel to have an equestrian theme—including riding trails and horse paddocks—in keeping with the town’s traditions. Johnson purchased nearly 350 acres in 2002, lands once owned by former U.S. ambassador Pamela Harriman, a one-time daughter-in-law of Winston Churchill. She thought it would take just a few years to build her dream. In the end, it would take more than ten years.
The local government had to issue permits and every step of the way it dragged its heels, finding one reason or another to delay or deny a permit. Often, Johnson had to take the town to court.
“I was naïve about realizing that I was south of the Mason-Dixon Line and a lot of people got very nervous about this African American woman coming in and building this resort,” admits the 68-year-old Johnson, who is no stranger to racial discrimination. Growing up, the Pennsylvania-born Johnson moved more than a dozen times before settling in Maywood, just outside Chicago, because her neurosurgeon father’s race frequently became an issue.
Those experiences, however, taught Johnson a resilience that serves her to this day. “I learned the life of hard knocks and racism but I was also able to assimilate into the different cultures and do what I had to do to make things work,” she said.
In the end, she won.
Today the Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg has won the coveted Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond awards.
The hotel is the crown jewel in an impressive constellation of almost ten hotels. Earlier this year, she added Nopsi New Orleans to her portfolio and Hotel Bennett in Charleston, South Carolina is set to join in summer 2018.
Equestrian-themed, Salamander Resort & Spa’s 168 guestrooms and suites boast countryside views as well as an on-site stable, a 23,000-square-foot spa, a heated pool and a cooking studio. “I think what is different with our resorts is people feel so comfortable and so at home,” says Johnson. “When they enter our doors, they do not feel like it’s just a regular hotel.”
“With my resorts,” she continues, “I want to make sure it’s my thumbprint. It’s not a Ritz-Carlton thumbprint or St. Regis. And those are great hotels.”
Johnson’s impact on the hospitality industry and Loudoun County specifically has been undeniable, says Beth Erickson, Visit Loudoun’s president/CEO since 2014 who works closely with Salamander. Loudoun County tourism accounts for nearly 17,000 hospitality jobs and generates roughly $1.6 billion annually in spending. And Johnson is a big part of that success.
“When Sheila opened Salamander, it was the only new luxury destination resort in the United States that opened in 2013 and, by opening it alone, it created 400 jobs,” says Erickson. “Occupancy taxes from Salamander have exceeded $1.3 million per year.”
And Middleburg has reaped the rewards. “Some of those taxes,” reports Erickson, “went directly to improving sidewalks and crosswalks in Middleburg. It created revenue that allowed the town’s failing pipes to be replaced.”
Johnson, who is also a film producer with ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’’ (2013) among her credits, “has literally brought Hollywood to Loudoun County” with the Middleburg Film Festival she started when Salamander opened, adds Erickson.
Held annually in October, Erickson says the festival has put “us on the map in the company of Cannes, Telluride, Sundance and that is wonderful company to keep.” The 2017 festival, held October 19-22, spotlighted the Academy Award nominated film ‘Mudbound’ and featured a talk with its acclaimed black female director Dee Rees. In 2016, the festival also screened ‘Moonlight’ and ‘La La Land,’ which both won Oscars later.
“I was always a businesswoman,” she says. “I could not prove that earlier but I’m proving it now.”