At last fall's groundbreaking for the Marriott Residence Inn in downtown Baltimore, Mayor Martin O'Malley spotted a bearish, gregarious man who has become a familiar face at such events.
"Are you in this one too?" the mayor recalls asking.
"Yep," replied Ronald H. Lipscomb.
At 48, Lipscomb is one of the city's most prominent black builders and, lately, developers. Thanks in part to a system meant to create opportunities for minorities, he holds stakes in projects from Harbor East to South Baltimore to midtown and beyond. The latest is a proposed Four Seasons "urban resort," where he is thinking of buying a seven-figure penthouse.
During his rise to multimillionaire status, Lipscomb has become close to some of Baltimore's most powerful people - and those ties have helped propel him still higher in business circles.
He has sipped wine with mega-developer C. William Struever on Tide Point's deck. He has been brought into an elite partnership by John Paterakis Sr., the bread mogul who is redefining Harbor East. He is a good friend of City Council President Sheila Dixon and went to the Bahamas with a group last year for her 50th birthday.
Until now Lipscomb has kept a low profile, shunning all but cursory news media attention. But he recently agreed to be interviewed, at a time when he has been thrust into the public eye by U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, who has subpoenaed Lipscomb and others as part of an investigation of the City Council and the city's minority business development program.
Fans in high places
No one has suggested wrongdoing by Lipscomb, and he has fans in high places. O'Malley, who has received $8,670 in campaign donations since 1999 from Lipscomb, his wife and his contracting firm, said: "In the years I have known him, I have never heard anything but good things about his character, his professionalism and his integrity."
And while Lipscomb declined to discuss DiBiagio's probe, as did DiBiagio's office, he made it clear he feels he has nothing to hide from prosecutors.
"I have never done anything inappropriate from a business point of view, absolutely not," he said. "You may not believe me, but I've been a standup guy my whole career."
To his admirers, that 25-year career is a textbook case of the good that can come when hard work and ambition are given a spark by government programs aimed at ensuring a larger share of the construction pie for minorities.
Yet now he wonders whether those achievements are under a cloud because of his race. DiBiagio requested records of income, loans and grants Lipscomb received from the city and any gifts he gave Dixon, according to sources familiar with the probe. In at least one case, Dixon has said she "twisted some arms" in city government to aid a $25 million Lipscomb-led housing development.
"If there's a small amount of success in the minority business community, it's still out there that there must be something wrong with it or somebody else behind it," said Lipscomb, who lives in Mitchellville in Prince George's County. "Very rarely do people attribute it to hard work or good business acumen."
For Lipscomb, being African-American has always been something of a double-edged sword, working for and against him.
He recalls two biting insults on his first day at Rogers-Herr Junior High School in Durham, N.C., where his mother was a homemaker and his father was a schoolteacher. It was the South in 1968, and he was one of four black students.
First a clerk at a convenience store near the school accused him of trying to steal a snack. Then a white student spat at him in a stairwell as he walked to class. Lipscomb said he refused to get angry or respond.
"I just tried to move forward," he said. "What I always try to do is answer hostilities with success and hard work."
At Rogers-Herr, he scored well on the PSAT standardized test. That became his ticket to the rarefied world of the Woodberry Forest School, a wealthy, mostly white boarding school in Virginia. He received a scholarship from a foundation set up by a tobacco heiress to integrate prep schools.
If the incidents in junior high girded him for racial discrimination, Woodberry Forest taught him another lesson - the ability to forge connections with people very unlike himself.
His classmates included a DuPont, a member of the Hanes underwear family and Marvin Bush, son and brother of two future presidents. It was intimidating, Lipscomb said, "but after the first couple of years, everybody was like everybody else. It helped me so much in my business because it became ordinary."
Mind on business
Even then, business was on his mind. His adviser, Travis Tysinger, recalls him as a "very good, very bright" student, but Lipscomb said he was indifferent. He wanted to go into the world and build a business. He attended Duke University and the University of Minnesota, and in 1979, at age 23, headed to Baltimore to start a career.