By Kristen M. Daum
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
WELLINGTON — A town of 1,700 people in rural North Carolina is reaping the spoils of war between equestrian mogul Mark Bellissimo and the Wellington Village Council.
Namely, a $100 million development that will bring jobs, sporting events, tourism and future economic growth that Wellington will have no part in.
Fed up with village politics and a council majority that repeatedly opposes his plans to grow Wellington’s equestrian industry, the man who rescued the Winter Equestrian Festival is turning his interests to Tryon, N.C. — where he and several partners recently unveiled plans to build a massive equestrian event center and luxury resort on 1,400 acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Bellissimo — whose companies own and operate two of Wellington’s world-renowned equestrian venues — says he’s done expanding his operations in the village until the political majority on the Wellington council is out of office.
“We are committed to re-invest in Wellington only when this atmosphere changes and the political leaders want to build, not dismantle, its future,” Bellissimo said in a statement.
But county officials are concerned.
George Linley, executive director for the Palm Beach County Sports Commission, said the Winter Equestrian Festival at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center — an 89-acre facility owned and managed by Bellissimo — generates $100 million in annual visitor spending for the county and more than 90,000 room nights in hotels or seasonal rentals during its three-month run between January and March.
“It’s huge, the impact that it brings to the county,” Linley said. “There’s not a lot of sporting events out there that generate those kinds of numbers.”
The Boston native rode into town several years ago and bought the equestrian festival when it was foundering. His vision: expand the Wellington horse “industry” — his word — targeting the masses. He put in a carousel and a tiki hut and hosted acts from Key West: mimes and fire-eaters.
But the traditionalists, led by the billionaire Jacobs family, could not abide the staples of suburbia and big-box business in the equestrian preserve. They poured more than $500,000 into the village’s 2012 municipal election, backing candidates they knew would stop Bellissimo’s plans. They won.
Local politics aside, business leaders and officials in Palm Beach County fear Bellissimo’s decision to direct his business investments 700 miles away is troublesome.
“The equestrian industry has been here for so many years and it’s such an important piece of our Palm Beach County culture, so to have the next major investment for that industry go to another state draws great concern,” said Daniel Martell, president and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County.
Bellissimo said in a statement he’s “extremely committed” to his investments in Wellington and “will protect that investment,” but he’s through fighting an uphill battle with a local government he feels has stifled his efforts at every turn.
“Our only investments in Wellington will be those that are required for a development order (or) master plan, or essential for community safety,” Bellissimo said.
Bellissimo still has several projects to complete as part of development approvals for Equestrian Village, a 59-acre dressage venue at the corner of Southshore Boulevard and Pierson Road that’s been fraught with controversy.
A newly elected council majority — Mayor Bob Margolis, Vice Mayor John Greene and Councilman Matt Willhite — revoked approvals for Equestrian Village in 2012 and ignited a flurry of lawsuits with Bellissimo. The village ultimately approved the venue last fall, long after much of it was already built.
However, efforts are still under way by the Jacobses to get those approvals overturned.
Greene said he’s known about Bellissimo’s plans in North Carolina for some time and said he’s not concerned about any effect they could have on Wellington’s equestrian industry. He also disputes Bellissimo’s depiction of the current council majority.
“I haven’t seen any evidence that this council has prohibited him from doing anything he’s entitled to,” Greene said. “If he wants to try to change land use and change regulation, that’s his decision. … But this council has been strong on protecting the equestrian preserve, and we’ve been very consistent on that.”
Margolis and Willhite did not return calls seeking comment last week.
However, others agree the village council has some responsibility to bear.
“The reason is because of this adversarial council,” said Councilwoman Anne Gerwig, who like Councilman Howard Coates, often finds herself on the losing side of a 3-2 vote when it comes to controversial equestrian issues.
“There was a lot of lip service and not a lot of cooperation,” she said of the council majority’s actions against Bellissimo.
But Gerwig agreed with Greene that the North Carolina resort shouldn’t be a major threat to Wellington.
“We are still a pretty hot item as far as the winter season here,” she said. “It’s not setting us back necessarily as much as chilling it a little.”
However, because Wellington’s equestrian industry has been on such a rise, the threat that it could diminish is still very real.
Martell said the Wellington council, which he described as “very reasonable,” should understand “it’s not acceptable to hold back an industry from its responsible growth in the community.”
“I’m sure that they certainly understand that the growth of this industry is imperative on the county’s continued cultural and economic growth,” Martell said.
Bellissimo’s investor group for his North Carolina site has many of the same partners as his Wellington partnership, including Roger Smith who reportedly first proposed the Tryon location. Tryon has a rich equestrian history, specifically in show-jumping. It hosted the 1956 and 1960 Olympic trials.
The resort will be home to the Tryon International Equestrian Center, which opened last week and already has five arenas and 500 permanent stables. Plans are to expand it to include a 6,000-seat outdoor stadium and additional arenas and stables.
The resort will feature a spa, an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, two luxury hotels and an upscale community of homes and rental cabins. Managing the hospitality side will be Salamander Hotels & Resorts — which was founded by Sheila Johnson, who also founded Black Entertainment Television and is part-owner in several professional sports teams in Washington, D.C.
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