Wellington residents may have recently noticed a healthy rash of construction noise coming from the Equestrian Center. The highly anticipated multimillion upgrade of their treasured Wellington International equestrian facilities had finally commenced—only to be silenced, several months later. What goes on?
For the last 15 years, Wellington, Florida, a village situated just 15 miles southwest of West Palm Beach and 66 miles north of Miami, has been hailed as the world’s premiere place for equestrian sports. The village hosts the annual Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF), which attracts tens of thousands of spectators for 13 weeks, and adds over $300 million to Palm Beach County coffers.
But a new chapter is opening in Wellington’s complex horse history. Here’s the latest on the hope, promise—and development snags—playing out in the self-proclaimed Equestrian Capital of the World.
A Name Change and Rebranding Reflect New Direction
For starters, Mark Bellissimo, managing partner of Wellington Equestrian Partners, LLC (WEP), and the management team of Palm Beach International Equestrian Center decided that to grow and change for the better, a name change was in order. Now the world-renowned South Florida facility is called Wellington International.
“When the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center was first founded, it relied on the reputation of the popular tourist destination of Palm Beach to bring participants and fans out to the horse shows,” said Vaneli Bojkova, executive vice president of Equestrian Sport Productions, in a recent Wellington The Magazine blog.
New Partnership Sets the Stage for Expansion Plans
The chief architect of Florida’s southern Saratoga was Mark Bellissimo, a Massachusetts-born Harvard Business School graduate and entrepreneur who came to Wellington with dreams of making Wellington the epicenter of equestrian sports. Now that he’s put the Florida village on the map, he wants it to stay there, and to that end, he teamed up with Denmark-based Global Equestrian Group (GEG) on a new 11-acre expansion of his equestrian mecca, including new, state-of-the-art Global Dressage Festival showgrounds.
Originally, the plan was to move the dressage festival from its current location to the nearby International Polo club, but that idea was scrapped. As part of the new plan, GEG acquires the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center (PBIEC). Bellissimo, WEP’s CEO, remains on board in a managerial role, WEP will invest in GEG, and WEP’s key partners, Roger Smith, Lisa Lourie of Spy Coast Farm, Marsha Dammerman and WEP President Michael Stone will continue in their roles.
GEG is part of Waterland, a private equity firm that manages a hefty $11 billion global investment portfolio. GEG has some major players in the global horse community among its top management, including Danish dressage rider Andreas Helgstrand, who is co-owner and CEO. German show jumper and former Olympian Ludger Beerbaum of Beerbaum Stables is also a partner (pictured above).
With its purchase of Wellington International, GEG will own equine event venues in the U.S., Denmark, and Germany. Mr. Helgstrand predicts, “Together, we will strengthen the offering and create a global market leader spreading our passion for equestrian sport and lifestyle to new markets.”
The Expansion Project
The Wellington expansion project includes doubling the facility’s acreage, which would be used to build a second equestrian center with a 65-foot stadium, a grass derby field, and luxury guest amenities. The stadium would cover over 206,000 square feet, with seating for 3,000 to 5,000 people and 50 viewing boxes that would seat up to 400.
The plan also called for seven horse barns with a total of over 3,000 stalls, as well as VIP hospitality and vendor spaces. Transportation around the massive facility would be accomplished through a network of sidewalks, golf cart roads and bridle trails.
The plan was set in motion early last year when Etienne Rossler was hired as Business Development Manager by Wellington International of Global Equestrian Group and flown in from Germany to proceed with construction. After three new buildings were erected, four renovated, and over 400 new stalls built, construction abruptly stopped. The exact underlying reason remains unclear but the resulting consequences may have been either irreconcilable differences between business entities, or cash flow issues, or re-zoning rejections, or, all of the above.
Rival Horse Lord Vies for Equestrian Supremacy
If domination of the very lucrative equine industry is the goal, many feel the impending expansion a wise and necessary move. And a very timely one. There is now a contender trying to take Wellington’s equestrian crown. The family of the late trucking magnate Ralph L. ‘Larry’ Roberts Sr. is trying to turn Ocala, a central Florida town of about 65,000 residents, into the next horse capital of the world. The family spent almost $1 billion to build World Equestrian Center, an event complex that has more and larger arenas than Wellington International, along with a larger variety of retail, restaurant options, and lodging.
The competition from Ocala serves to harden the Wellington developers’ resolve to push forward on the expansion. “If we sit idle, I think Wellington will atrophy,” Bellissimo was quoted as saying in the Wall Street Journal.
Bellissimo’s Development Plans Face Pushback
Not all of Wellington International’s expansion plans are being met with open arms. Bellissimo’s development company Wellington Lifestyle Partners has submitted a proposal for The Wellington, two luxury communities that would be built near the expanded Wellington International grounds. The project is broken into two distinct developments, Wellington North, and Wellington South.
Wellington North is meeting resistance from residents and a nonprofit group. Last month, the environmental advocacy group, 1,000 Friends of Florida, voiced its concern regarding the development, stating that because it would require removing 96 acres from the 9,000-acre equestrian preserve, the members opposed the plan because they felt that once land is taken from the preserve it makes it that much easier for future developers to remove more.
This is Bellissimo’s third attempt to build in the preserve. In 2012, he submitted plans to build a hotel next to the dressage arena. In 2016, he filed an application for another hotel to be built next to Wellington International. That proposal led to record-breaking voter turnout that banned hotels and apartments from the equestrian preserve. Recent developments:
- In April of this year, local Florida celebrities, Justin Timberlake and Tiger Woods teamed up to invest in a golf course on Bellissimo’s proposed equestrian project, The Wellington.
- In June, headlines in Eurodressage read “Bellissimo Playing Chess with Helgstrand’s Global Equestrian Group to Secure Zoning Changes for New Golf Community in Wellington” after the Wellington Equestrian Preserve Committee (EPC), which has its own zoning district, voted 7-0 to deny Bellissimo’s proposal to take land out of the preserve for a luxury golf community near and on the horse show grounds.
- In July, Bellissimo and his partners sought approval of land use and zoning changes to move forward with their proposal for a huge luxury mixed-use community in Wellington.
- By August, at the third and final meeting of the Wellington Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board (PZAB) for Bellissimo’s mixed-use project, the board recommended against or tabling moving 96 acres out of Equestrian Preserve.
- In October, the Bellissimo team submitted another proposal to build a new horse showground while waiting for Wellington officials to consider their prior submission to replace Equestrian Village with two luxury home neighborhoods.
- November, the Village Council has scheduled three meetings to pass or oppose the Bellissimo teams’ all-or-nothing proposal where, in exchange for permission to build their communities, they will also will help pay for a new equestrian center just west of The Wellington South luxury community.
Because Wellington International borders the Equestrian Preserve, which the village created in 2002 to protect 9,000 acres for horses and green spaces with riding trails, expansion of the equine mecca continues to be a bone of contention. At some point either the preservation of free-range horse-friendly space, or Wellington’s stronghold on the lucrative equine industry will prevail. The stakes are high in this power-player game, and one wonders if a win-win isn’t possible. Is there a compromise solution in the future? As for the outcome of these current, new developments, rest assured, Wellington’s complicated equestrian story is far from over. This is just another turn of the page.
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