Ground Broken on Salamander Resort in Middleburg

There she was, braving a downpour in muddy boots, pushing a gold shovel into a 340-acre Virginia meadow where equestrians like Pamela Harriman and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis once rode.

Sheila Johnson broke ground Thursday morning on her $130 million Salamander Resort & Spa, a luxury inn destined to be the flagship of the sprawling lifestyle company that she is knitting together up and down the East Coast. The Middleburg resort will open fall of 2009.

"I feel wonderful about this," said Johnson shortly after throwing a couple of heaps of dirt. "This is a historical moment. When all is said and done, this is going to be wonderful for the town of Middleburg."

The Johnson empire, operating as Salamander Hospitality, features several different business lines. It includes Market Salamander, a gourmet food and catering operation in Middleburg and Palm Beach, Fla. Then there's the five-star, 19-room inn in Summerville, S.C., known as Woodlands, which Johnson bought last year. She has also formed a luxury hotel management company with projects underway in New Orleans and at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. And over the summer, Salamander Hospitality bought the Innisbrook golf and tennis resort in Palm Harbor, Fla., near Tampa, for $35 million.

Salamander Hospitality President President Prem Devadas runs the business from an office on Main Street in Middleburg, just a few steps from the market and the soon-to-be resort. "Sheila and I feel a great sense of responsibility to deliver a world-class resort that our friends and supporters in Middleburg can be very proud," he said. "And now we are going to do just that."

But not everyone is thrilled.

"My feelings haven't changed. I still think it's too big for this town," said Middleburg Town Councilmember Catherine "Bundles" Murdock.

The project faced stiff opposition before it received formal approval from Middleburg and Loudoun County. Now that ground has been broken, even opponents are resigned to the inevitable.

"I was outvoted on the council," she said. "Many citizens want it. And now I just hope they build the best they can build. And Sheila is assuring us of that."

Middleburg Mayor Betsy Davis was on hand, as was Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott York and Loudoun County Supervisor Stephen J. Snow. Former Middleburg Mayor Tim Dimos attended as well.
The wet weather over the past two days soaked the site so thoroughly that the grounbreaking had to be moved a few hundred yards to a drier patch, where everyone gathered under a white tent. The event was catered, naturally, by Market Salamander.

It may have been miserable and rainy and muddy, but those who showed up feasted on Market Salamander crab cakes with spicey remoulade, miniature pumpkin pie tartlets, tri-color fingerling potatoes with creme freche and caviar, bourbon chicken salad on garlic crostini and smoked salmon on brioche. The gourmet fare was washed down with hot cider and champagne.

"It was the first time that everyone was happy with it raining because we so much need the rain," said Mayor Davis. "I and the town are thrilled for Sheila. As she said, this is for all of us and she won't let us down."
-- Thomas Heath

By Mike Shepard  |  October 25, 2007; 5:33 PM ET  | Category:  Hospitality
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