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Coal man Justice saves treasure with luxury spending spree

Jim Justice, who last week added another luxury resort to his purchase of the legendary Greenbrier property in 2009, has become something of a miracle worker for the people of West Virginia in America's Appalachian region, writes Darrell Delamaide.

He snatched Greenbrier from imminent takeover by the Marriott hotel chain and then brought it out of bankruptcy, he's promised to invest $25 million for a new casino and entertainment centre at the resort, and has accomplished the seemingly impossible by landing an annual PGA golfing event, the Greenbrier Classic, for six years starting this July.

"My dad said, if something is really hard, it'll take two days," Justice told a local newspaper. "If it's impossible, it'll take another day."

Justice, who heads the Justice Family Group LLC, is flush after selling most of the family's West Virginia coal interests to Russia's Mechel for $436 million last year. The family still has coalmines in Kentucky and Tennessee and some 50 other businesses, but right now Justice himself is going full-bore on luxury resorts.

The latest purchase was for a second resort just 39 miles west of Greenbrier, which is located on the Virginia border in the southeastern part of the state. The 4,100-acre, 203-room Resort at Glade Springs will handle the overflow from the Greenbrier, with a shuttle bus connecting the two. Between the two resorts, a guest can play on a different golf course virtually every day for a week.

Justice, seemingly undaunted by his new career, immediately applied well-honed business skills to his role as a hotel and resort operator. He defused the situation with Marriott by offering to put the world-famous resort in the chain's international reservations system or pay them a break-up fee for the failed acquisition. This enabled the deal to go through and for Greenbrier to get out of bankruptcy. When Justice and Marriott failed to come to terms on the reservation scheme, the family entrepreneur paid the agreed $7.5 million break-up fee.

Justice got rid of most of the Greenbrier management, hired back most of the workers who were laid off when the resort plunged into loss, and made plans for the casino previously approved by special legislation and open only to resort guests, club members and those attending events there.

He then convinced Delta Air Lines to schedule a daily roundtrip service from Atlanta and New York to the tiny Greenbrier Valley Airport. The prospect of the casino, the PGA event (and the three championship golf courses at Greenbrier), and perhaps a subsidy from the resort persuaded Delta to start up regular service this June.

For 58-year-old Justice, who attended college on a golf scholarship, the chance to rescue and revitalise one of West Virginia's most historic sites – the resort dates back to 1778 – and a Mecca for golfers, was hard to resist.

"The treasure was being diminished," he said in a newspaper interview. "I truly believe if some hotel chain had bought this, it would be like sandblasting Mount Rushmore. The treasure would have been lost."

Despite his new business interests, Justice has not been completely diverted from the coal industry. Even as he was negotiating the sale of Bluestone Coal to Mechel, he was busy buying A&G Coal across the border in Virginia, while keeping the family's Kentucky and Tennessee mining interests out of the Russian deal.

The Justice Family Farms, which Jim Justice started in 1976 when he joined the family business, are said to be the largest cash grain operation on the US East Coast, producing corn, wheat and soybeans on more than 50,000 acres in four states. The family also owns a John Deere farm equipment dealership, timber interests, grain storage facilities, cotton warehouses, a Christmas tree farm and two commercial turf farms.

Justice's son, Jay (formally James C Justice III), is executive vice president of the holding company that runs the other businesses, so it seems likely that the family work ethic Jim Justice received from his father is being passed on to a third generation.

Justice was born and raised in West Virginia, and visited the Greenbrier resort as a child with his family. His father, who founded the Bluestone Coal operation, was raised in a coal camp, and his mother also came from the area.

As a bulky 6-foot-7 man with a shock of white hair, Justice likes to play Santa Clause at local churches and ride a combine on the family farms – the miracle worker tag therefore sits well with this family businessman who has returned to save a local treasure.

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