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In Full Bloom

After buying the Greenbrier Resort, local businessman Jim Justice is leading the rebirth of the historic property that has been one of America's premier destinations since 1778

By: Hunki Yun

Appeared in Summer 2010 LINKS

IT TAKES JIM JUSTICE A LONG TIME to walk through the lobby of the Greenbrier Resort, and not just because of his bad knee. The six-foot-seven owner of the West Virginia icon stops to greet nearly every guest or employee he encounters.

Justice inquires about their stays and recommends restaurants and activities. He talks basketball with the doormen, who call him “Coach.” (Justice has been a longtime scholastic hoops coach, most recently of the girls’ team at nearby Greenbrier East High School.)

No matter who he is talking to, Justice stands out, largely because of his size. But for many guests, his stature has less to do with his height and more with his actions. They are the ones who invariably approach him with the same six words: 

“Thank you for saving the Greenbrier.”

DATING TO 1778, the Greenbrier has hosted royalty and presidents, as well as generations of well-heeled visitors who have come to enjoy the classic architecture, slower pace and timeless elegance provided at this 6,500-acre property that sits like a modern-day Shangri-La in the Allegheny Mountains.

But by April 2009, that lifestyle was in jeopardy. The resort had filed for bankruptcy after losing $35 million in 2008, and parent company CSX was ready to sell the Greenbrier to the Marriott hotel chain.

Days before that deal was to close, in stepped Justice, who has lived in the area his entire life and holds treasured memories of visits with his family. Justice, who runs numerous businesses, including farms and coal mines, knew about the Greenbrier’s history and significance, both to visitors and to the local community. He also knew about Marriott’s interest, and that a property run by a large chain would not offer the same sense of place to guests or the staff.

On April 29 he called CSX. “I didn’t want people to think two years from now, ‘Justice could have saved us, but he didn’t,’” he says.

A week later, he had bought the Greenbrier for $20 million, and was walking through the grounds with a briefcase containing an 85-page contract and stock certificates, ready to announce the transaction. On the way, he ran into some employees, who recognized the lifelong resident of the area: “Coach, what are you doing here?”

All was revealed later at a staff meeting, during which he received a standing ovation. It was a big day for Justice and the Greenbrier, and the only hitch was when Justice temporarily misplaced his briefcase.

In the year since, there have been few missteps as Justice seeks not only to restore the Greenbrier to its former glory, but also to raise the resort to new heights. His first step was to recall furloughed workers and settle contracts with the unions. At the time, the resort had 750 employees, down from a seasonal high of 1,600 the previous summer.

“You can’t win the game unless your whole team is there,” says Justice. “I believe that if you have happy workers who are trying, they make you look better than you are. You can have all the elegance in the world, but if people are glaring, you won’t like being around them.

“It’s a people business, and enthusiasm is contagious.”

Almost immediately, Justice gave employees and guests more to be enthusiastic about by adding amenities and events. In October 2009 the resort opened a steakhouse called Prime 44 West, which pays tribute to West Virginia native and former Los Angeles Lakers star Jerry West, who is a good friend of Justice’s.

The restaurant is decorated with photos and memorabilia provided by West, who owns a home at the Greenbrier Sporting Club, the resort’s sister private golf community that Justice also bought.

“I wanted to do something in Jerry’s honor,” says Justice. “There’s really nothing in West Virginia that salutes his legacy. It took 45 years to retire his jersey at the university.”

Next up is the completion of the casino, which Justice describes as “Monte Carlo meets Gone with the Wind.” The facility will be 100,000 square feet in size and $80 million in cost, four times what Justice paid for the resort itself. This amenity is sure to be polarizing, with traditionalists decrying its incongruity and more-contemporary guests cheering the addition of an evening activity at a resort that still has signs in the hallways asking for quiet: “It’s sleepy time down South.”

Those fearing that the Greenbrier will turn into a mountain version of Harrah’s, with tour buses depositing gamblers at the front door, will be heartened by the regulations. For one, the casino will be underground, discreetly out of view. Second, there will be restrictions for access, by West Virginia law: Only resort guests, homeowners and members, as well as those attending events at the resort but staying off-property (but only if more than 400 of the 721 rooms are sold).

“I don’t want the casino to be the driver of the hotel,” says Justice.

THE CASINO WILL BE OPEN by the inaugural Greenbrier Classic, which will be played on the Old White from July 29 to August 1. Justice called another old friend, PGA Tour Tournament Director Slugger White, a former teammate on the golf team at Woodrow Wilson High School in nearby Beckley. The conversation set off a chain of events leading to the announcement of the event last August.

The Greenbrier will join Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, as the only facilities to host the Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup and a PGA Tour tournament. (The team events were held at the Greenbrier course, a Seth Raynor original redesigned by Jack Nicklaus.)

The event will be a chance to showcase to a larger audience the architecture of C.B. Macdonald, who built the Old White in 1914. Lester George restored the layout several years ago, so tour pros will have a rare chance to test their skills against Macdonald’s template holes, which offer timeless strategic propositions.

It will be fascinating to see how players react to holes like the 205-yard 3rd, a Biarritz with a deep valley bisecting the green, and the Alps, the 474-yard 13th, which asks for a blind second shot. The most dramatic hole could be the finishing one: Short. The 162-yarder has a green dominated by a large horseshoe-shaped ridge that could either repel or contain shots. Depending on the hole location, there is a chance that the tournament could end with a hole-in-one.

George has been on site this spring overseeing the addition of six new tees that will stretch the total yardage to 7,031. During one of his visits, he received a call from Bill Campbell, one of the game’s elder statesmen and the winner of 15 West Virginia Amateurs, most of them at the Greenbrier.

“We’re adding a new tee to the 16th,” George tells Campbell of the Cape hole. “It’s 40 yards back. It’s unbelievable how far these guys on tour hit it.”

Campbell was a role model for Jim Justice Sr., who was in turn a hero for his son, for whom memories of the Greenbrier are intertwined with those of his father. The pair would play together, and his father would always accompany Jim Jr. when he played amateur events there.

“My dad held the Greenbrier in such reverence,” says Justice.
Unfortunately, the Greenbrier was where his playing career ended. During the first round of the 1976 West Virginia Amateur on the Old White, Justice dislocated his left shoulder while hitting a shot on the 8th hole. A doctor who was in the gallery put the joint back in place, but that was his last competitive round.

Thirty-three years later, Justice had all but given up the game when he received an invitation he couldn’t turn down. Tom Watson, the Greenbrier’s golf professional emeritus since 2005, had just returned from his nearly historic performance at the 2009 British Open and wanted to play golf with the new owner. Justice played respectably, shooting 39 on the front nine. But he was nervous the whole time, and was relieved when rain forced them to return to the clubhouse.

Justice sees the Greenbrier Classic as the continuation of the resort’s golf lineage, which started nearly a century ago and includes not only events, but also names like Watson and Sam Snead, who had been the resort’s first pro emeritus until his death in 2002. He hopes some of today’s greats will come to be associated with the Greenbrier.

IN ADDITION TO THE CURRENT PROJECTS, Justice has additional plans for the resort: more shops, restaurants, teen center, auditorium for concerts and other events, train service on a steam-engine train from Washington, D.C., perhaps even an expansion in the number of rooms. The tricky part is balancing this progress with the resort’s traditions. 

Justice has no plans to rewrite its grand history or overhaul the touches that give the property its character. For example, the expansive entryway that has welcomed guests for decades will be restored after construction of the casino, which sits underneath, is done.

The rooms still feature the floral themes unveiled by noted interior designer Dorothy Draper when she redecorated the entire resort after World War II. In fact, Carleton Varney, president of Dorothy Draper & Company, is designing the interior of the casino.

There are still carriage rides, jackets and ties are still required in the main dining room, and the sulphur springs that first attracted visitors still run below the Springhouse. And one of the most popular
activities remains the tour of the Cold War-era bunker designed to be a top-secret relocation facility for Congress in case of an attack.

“I want all the tradition, elegance, history and treasures to stay,” says Justice. “But I want the snootiness to go. I don’t want to this to be where only the gifted few can come. I want it to be warm and welcoming.”

As a local, Justice wants more people in the area to feel as special as he did when he visited the Greenbrier. So in December, January and February, the resort held a tribute to the Virginias.

“We gave people the opportunity to stay here for $59 ,” he says. “It may be the only time ever in our history that we do it, but it was sure a feel-good thing that so many people came who never had a chance to before.

“As soon as we announced it, there was pandemonium. The whole place was booked up.”

In addition, he has brought some personal, small-town touches that a large chain wouldn’t have considered. For example, two of the signature items at Prime 44 West are Karen’s Italian Cream Cake, a recipe provided by Jerry West’s wife, and Cathy Justice’s Blue Ribbon Cornbread, an award-winning entry at the West Virginia State Fair.

For all the changes, Justice hasn’t lost sight of why people come to the Greenbrier, and why guests still thank him for buying it. Should he ever forget, the most pointed reminder is a letter he received from a woman who explained that she came here years ago with her family. The Greenbrier was the place where her son wore a tie for the first time, where her daughter rode her first horse.

She is now a grandmother, and she recently returned with her grandchildren, who went through the same first-time experiences.

“That,” says Justice, “is the story of the Greenbrier.”    

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