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A billionaire's busy first day on the job

PALM HARBOR The new Innisbrook owner encourages employees and breaks ground.

By DEMORRIS A. LEE
Published July 18, 2007


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Less than 24 hours after taking over ownership of Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, Sheila Crump Johnson already had set change into motion.

By 11 a.m. Monday, the billionaire had met with Innisbrook's 500 employees and encouraged them to seek their career goals within her company.

Also during the morning, the first bit of dirt was shoveled for a $1.5-million enhancement to one of Innisbrook's four championship golf courses.

"I'm about excellence. I'm about reaching the top. I'm about being the best," Johnson, 58, told a standing-room-only crowd at a Monday morning news conference.

Johnson officially announced that her companies, including Salamander Innisbrook Securities LLC, were now the new owner of the resort.

Johnson, the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, paid nearly $35-million for the resort, home to the PGA Tour PODS Championship.

Johnson said she is seeking to bring an International Women's Conference, a spa, a retail village and other sporting events to the nearly 1,000-acre resort.

But first the resort, which sits just off U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor, will need a facelift costing more than $10-million to reach the standard Johnson expects.

"I'm putting my money where my mouth is," said Johnson. "We are going to make this work."

Innisbrook had been in a financial mess for years.

In 2004, the resort reported $53-million in losses.

When Golf Trust of America, a publicly traded real estate investment trust based in Charleston, S.C., took over the place during the same year, it had more than $100-million in loans it could not repay.

In addition, there was a legal rift over more than $1-million in property taxes owed to the Pinellas County tax office and a dispute with a developer who wanted to build condominiums on a 39-acre parcel.

Salamander executive Chuck Pomerantz, who just relocated to Innisbrook and will be the resort's vice president and managing director, said he plans to meet with the developer of the 39-acre site in a few weeks to discuss how to integrate the parcel into Innisbrook. Pomerantz is confident something will be worked out.

Golf Trust of America president Bradley Blair told the crowd Monday that Salamander and Johnson have the vision, insight and capital to move Innisbrook forward. He said their ownership will be good for the community.

"I can walk away feeling I put this place in the best possible hands," Blair said.

Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris, who was one of the many state and local officials at the news conference, said it's important to remember that tourism is Pinellas County's top industry.

"We want the resort to continue to move into the future so that it's not an '80s resort, but so that it can continue to compete with the 2007 resorts," Harris said.

Many of those who live in Innisbrook and own property there are pleased with the new energy.

"I think this is what this resort needs," said Frank Watts, 81, who has been a property owner for 36 years and an Innisbrook resident since 1999.

"It's been in need of a good owner for a long time. It's a beautiful place. It needs someone who can put some money into it and bring it back to its glory days."

Johnson has promised to do that.

A trained concert violinist, Johnson may be the first black woman to own a golf resort the magnitude of Innisbrook.

Though turning around the troubled resort will present her challenges, Johnson said she will be resilient like a salamander, the animal after which she named her company.

She noted Monday the legend that the salamander is the only animal that can survive walking through fire.

"Not only are we going to walk through fire," Johnson said with ease and confidence, "we are going to come out alive."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 17, 2007, 20:41:54]


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