`Apprentice' runner-up shines in realty deal

Star: Kwame Jackson leads the unveiling of his Rosewood homes and commercial development in Upper Marlboro.

August 26, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Donning a Harvard M.B.A. suit and a prime-time TV smile, Kwame Jackson swaggered in front of a throng of news media in Prince George's County yesterday and glad-handed politicians and developers as if he'd just won the NBC competition to become real estate magnate Donald Trump's apprentice.

But The Apprentice runner-up had something else in mind yesterday: lending his fame to his own multibillion-dollar development in a sparsely developed area of the Washington suburbs.

Like many celebrities and pseudo-celebrities created by the big and small screen, Kwame - he introduced himself by first name only, like Madonna or Cher - was jumping onto the next thing before the end of his 15 minutes of fame.

Hardly breaking a sweat although he never took off his suit jacket, Jackson drew the bulk of the attention during a two-hour event in the midday heat to unveil what the developers said would be a $3 billion "urban city center" of shops, homes, entertainment venues and offices. The project, known as Rosewood, is to be built on a 500-acre tract just outside the Capital Beltway in Upper Marlboro.

"We saw that coming," state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said of Jackson's allure. Flanagan was among a collection of state and local officials on hand, most of them with more resume entries but less TV power than Jackson.

The warm and sticky air yesterday took its toll on at least one of the day's speakers. State Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's Democrat, slumped in his chair, prompting Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to call for a doctor and send aides for water and an ambulance. A conscious and waving Currie was taken to Prince George's Hospital Center, where he was reported in good condition last night.

The program continued without Currie, who other state leaders said was integral in securing funding for Pennsylvania Avenue improvements. The inadequate piece of road that leads past the White House had been stalling local development for years.

Just as money was coming through, Jackson contacted the property owner, The Michael Companies Inc. of Lanham. Jackson formed Legacy Holdings LLC, which he said would be a TV and film production, fashion and real estate empire that reflects the image of his idol Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats professional basketball team and now a Baltimore hotel developer.

It wouldn't hurt if it also rivaled the portfolio of the man who fired him, Trump. Jackson outperformed 14 contestants on the hit reality show that tested their book and street smarts in the business world, but he was bested during the season finale in April by Bill Rancic, who is now Trump's apprentice.

Jackson follows other celebrities, with varying motivations and financial involvement, who have parlayed their fame into business ventures. Among them, former basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson plans to open one of his movie theaters nearby in Largo. And Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis plans to open a barbecue restaurant in Canton.

But not all that glitters on screen shines in business. Ask Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Sylvester Stallone, celebrity backers of the failed restaurant chain Planet Hollywood.

In his first real estate development, Jackson will be an equity partner with Michael Companies, although it's unclear how much money he will bring and where he will get it.

Kenneth H. Michael, company chairman, said it's too early to talk about financing, but Jackson had demonstrated to him an ability to raise funds.

Jackson said he chose Prince George's County for his first project because he spent his early youth in Washington.

"One of the most important lessons I learned from Donald Trump is that real estate can be one of the most successful vehicles for the production of wealth," Jackson said. "More importantly, this project is about creating a lasting legacy of African-American entrepreneurialism on a grand scale, with a focus on ownership."

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