Trouble in Paradise
For a quarter-century, Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs ruled the clubby equestrian scene in Wellington, Florida. From his palatial estate, he fought to keep the exclusive community exactly the way he and his family wanted it. Then a brash Boston entrepreneur named Mark Bellissimo appeared on the scene. Now the two men have declared war on each other—and the fate of the town hangs in the balance.
Jeremy Jacobs has long been a force to be reckoned with in Wellington. When the town sought to incorporate, in the mid-1990s, in order to collect millions in taxes that were instead going to the county and state, Jacobs aggressively fought the change. He and other large-property owners stood to pay significant tax increases, but they were also worried that a new village government would not be sympathetic enough to the concerns of equestrians, who amounted to just a few thousand potential votes. “He hired lobbyists to fight us in Tallahassee,” Kathy Foster, who became Wellington’s first mayor, told me. “He really underwrote the anti-incorporation group. It was a full-blown campaign to stop incorporation.” Despite the campaign, Wellington narrowly voted in 1995 to incorporate and become a village.
A year later, when Wellington wanted to improve access to a new kids’ park by paving the dirt-road section of Pierson Road in front of Deeridge, Jacobs—fearing increased traffic—again engaged lobbyists in Tallahassee. Legal wrangling ensued, but he finally caved, allowing the road so long as the village installed speed bumps and a traffic circle. He did, however, manage to block a proposed bike path.
In 2001, when the village wanted to extend Pierson Road to connect with the rest of the community, Jacobs threatened a lawsuit. Rather than allowing the road to simply run east to west, he insisted on a logic-defying traffic detour that is now a dangerous intersection. Bruins fans, of course, have grumbled for years that the Jacobses, based in Buffalo, care about Boston only so much as the city serves their needs, and some in Wellington were beginning to feel the same way. “It was always difficult dealing with Mr. Jacobs and his interests,” Kathy Foster told me.
The following year, Jacobs scored a major victory. A group he was backing managed to help establish new zoning laws for the equestrian preserve. Buildings could no longer be taller than 35 feet, condos and cluster homes were outlawed, and streets were limited to two lanes. In many ways, these rules were farsighted. They have helped prevent Wellington from becoming a typical south Florida wasteland of eight-lane roads, strip malls, Walgreens, big-box stores, and retirement communities. But they also set the stage for future showdowns.
Under Mark Bellissimo, the International Equestrian Center has come a long way. Today it has 12 competition rings, 2,500 stables, a central arena capable of holding some 7,000 people, and even bathrooms. I recently met Bellissimo in the International Club, a VIP area set beside the main ring that features three tiers of cloth-covered tables (180 in total), a buffet, and chandeliers hanging overhead from a tented roof. As we were talking, Bellissimo pointed out Jeremy Jacobs’s teenage granddaughter, Charlotte, who had just ridden into the show-jumping arena atop a gray horse. The sun glistened off the horse’s silver mane as Charlotte spurred it up and over the obstacles set in their path. Bellissimo shrugged, trying his hardest to convey that he was not bothered by the sight of a Jacobs family member bouncing around on his turf. “They’re customers,” he’d later explain.
Before long, Bellissimo sprang up and offered me a tour, eager to show off how he’s transformed the center into one of the world’s top equestrian facilities. As we passed through the International Club, its wealthy members ambled about in riding britches and designer clothes, trading gossip, conducting business, and occasionally even watching the action on the course. You got the feeling that if a group of Bond villains were to get together and hold a convention, this would be the spot. “The average table in here is $45,000 a pop,” Bellissimo boasted. “Per year, for a 12-week time period.”
Stepping outside, we walked the concourse beside the stands. Since 2008, Bellissimo’s first season in charge, he’s added about 3,000 blue plastic stadium seats, concessions, a JumboTron, and paved walkways. We passed by new Hermès and Ariat shops, and then stopped at a cluster of little white commercial tents. Bellissimo pointed to one, leased by a jewelry vendor. “That 10-by-10 space is $1,100 per week, okay?” he said. “We have 100 of those on the property. You’ve got Hermès, Ariat, these just amazing brands we’ve brought in. Sponsorship has increased 600 percent since we’ve taken over. The vendor area has grown 300 percent. International Club has grown 600 percent.” He pointed to the box seats that lined the ring. They cost “about eight grand,” he said, and they were sold out.
Under Bellissimo’s stewardship, the local economic impact of the festival has grown from $57 million in 2005 to $121 million in 2011. And with profits up, he can now offer bigger purses and draw superior competition, cementing his festival’s reputation as a first-class horse show. Gone are the days of that simple grass field. Proper turf has been installed, and the facilities are now some of the best in the world, said Nick Skelton, a British equestrian who won a team show-jumping gold at the Olympics last summer, and who spends the whole season in Wellington. “A lot more people are coming from Europe to ride.”
“This is a fairly upscale community,” a Jacobs family spokesman said. “We don’t need to bring the low- and middle-income hooligans into town.”
Bellissimo may have gone upscale at the equestrian center, but he’s also been chipping away at the wall between the equestrian preserve and the rest of Wellington. He loves to brag about how his annual charity horse-jumping event raised $1.5 million this year for the community. (Implicit in this boast is the Jacobs family’s reputation for having done little public charity work in Wellington until recently.) But his biggest push has been to draw new fans to the equestrian center. Admission to horse shows is free, except on Saturday nights, when it’s $20 per carload for what Bellissimo calls “Saturday Night Lights.” He advertises these spectaculars all over town, and even brings in street performers—face painters, magicians, fire eaters, and the like—and a horse mascot who walks around taking pictures with kids. There’s a carousel near the main show ring. “I grew up in Boston,” he told me. “A big night out for us growing up was going to Faneuil Hall on the Green Line, and just hanging out and getting a Regina’s pizza, and watching street performers. It was some of the best memories I have of my childhood.”
All of these changes have come as a shock to some of Wellington’s tradition-minded equestrians. Bellissimo told me this while standing next to the Tiki Hut restaurant he built beside the main ring. “I wanted to send a message,” he said. “The first thing we did was build this tiki hut. People said, ‘You can’t do this, this is Palm Beach, it’s Mizner, it’s an elegant spot.’ And I’m like, ‘No, we’re gonna build a tiki hut and make it fun and make it a place where anyone from this community can come.’” In that spirit, he’s also built a ringside function room called the Gallery, which after dark becomes a nightclub. By its door is a large sign that reads, “OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.”
For some in Wellington, those words are a poke in the eye. “With the circus atmosphere that’s being promoted, I think we’ve lost a certain amount of high-class dignity,” said Michael Whitlow, a board member of the Wellington Equestrian Preservation Alliance, a group set up by the Jacobs family to support their interests. “I would like to see Wellington be the elite of the elites. The absolutely crème de la crème, the top of the top, as opposed to something for everybody.” Lou Jacobs, for his part, said he doesn’t mind the circus atmosphere, but a number of his supporters disagreed. Marcia Radosevich, a Wellington resident who is originally from Boston, does not like all of the changes at the show grounds. “It’s a carnival,” she told me. “It’s not a horse showing. I think it cheapens the sport.”
A particular flashpoint came in 2010, when Bellissimo contracted out the center to a promoter staging a concert by the hip-hop artist Akon. “That didn’t go over too well,” said Mason Phelps, a former equestrian who today serves as a Jacobs family spokesman in Wellington. “Nor did we want to attract the kind of people the Akon concert would attract to this community…. The people that go and listen to and like Akon are not Wellingtonites. It’s just a different crowd of people. I don’t mean to sound like a snob, but this is a fairly upscale community, and we don’t need to bring the low- and middle-income hooligans into town and have them all of a sudden say, Wow, good pickins’ out here.”