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.
To most of us, dressage is still regarded as a curiosity—a strange “sport” in which horses walk to music. Among the equestrian set, though, it’s considered a noble pursuit with a long and venerable history. Which to Mark Bellissimo meant it represented yet another opportunity.
Shortly after buying the International Equestrian Center, Bellissimo also purchased some old polo fields on Pierson Road, halfway between the equestrian center and the Jacobs estate. For years Bellissimo revealed little about what he hoped to do with those fields. But in March 2011, he at last unveiled his plans: an $80 million, 59-acre “Equestrian Village” with five outdoor dressage rings, a covered arena, and a 100-unit, five-story condo/hotel complex that would include 70,000 square feet of retail and commercial space.
The Jacobs family quickly opposed the project. They didn’t like the idea of the noise, or the traffic, or the scale of development, or even where the barn would sit on the dressage facility. The whole thing—just a mile from Deeridge, and immediately adjacent to condos owned by Jeremy’s sons Lou and Charles, who is an internationally competitive rider and a principal in the Bruins and Delaware North—struck them as too close for comfort. But Bellissimo thinks something else was at work: that Jeremy Jacobs simply does not like him. “At the core of this,” he told me, “is the desire to disrupt our success.”
Lou Jacobs insisted that it wasn’t personal. He did admit, though, that the project’s proximity to Deeridge and his condo played a big role. “Would it be different if we were 5 miles away from here?” he asked. “Would I feel differently about it? I probably would. But it still doesn’t change the impact—that somebody wants to do something in an area that was previously designated as a place worth, quote, preserving.”
A particular flashpoint came when Bellissimo contracted out the center for a concert by the hip-hop artist Akon. “That didn’t go over too well,” said a Jacobs spokesperson.
By the time Bellissimo announced his plans, Wellington had been bludgeoned by the recession. Since 2008, its annual budget had decreased by about a third, from $110 million to $74 million, and the community was desperate for new jobs and tax revenue. Bellissimo argued that his proposed dressage facility would help the village permanently attract a whole new set of wealthy equestrians, and maybe even the prestigious World Equestrian Games. And besides, his supporters said, it wasn’t like the site was a beautiful forest in need of protection. It was some empty polo fields on the edge of the preserve, across the street from a strip mall.
Despite the Jacobses’ concerns, Bellissimo wasted little time getting to work, immediately pulling permits to build the development’s horse-related facilities. In May, just two months after the plan’s unveiling, Bellissimo held a public groundbreaking with Mayor Darell Bowen and other local officials. Opponents of the project took the champagne-and-shovel event as another example of Bellissimo’s bulldozing ahead with his plans and asking permission only later.
City officials told me that he has a history of skirting permits and thus committing violations. “Does he correct them? Yeah. Is it always easy to make him do it? No,” said Schofield, the village manager. “Will I tell you that he’s my favorite person to deal with? Absolutely not.”
And in fact, when the real construction work on the horse facilities began in November 2011, the village had yet to grant Bellissimo the right to build the hotel and shops or even to hold competitions at the venue he was at work on. The land was zoned for equestrian use—Bellissimo adhered to all zoning and construction rules—so building horse-related facilities was no problem. But he was going to need village-council approval to operate them commercially. “We just took the risk that the village would act in the best interest of the community,” Bellissimo told me.
As 2012 arrived, debate raged in Wellington about whether to grant Bellissimo his operating permit and allow him to build the hotel and shops. Around that time, Shauna Hostetler, a mother of five and former PTA president who supported Bellissimo, declared her intention to run for a seat in the upcoming village-council election, scheduled for March. Not long afterward, she says, an anonymous letter appeared on her doorstep, warning her to get out of the race. Hostetler showed it to the police, but dismissed it as a freak incident.
According to Hostetler, a few weeks later, on January 13, she returned home from running some errands to find her dog barking wildly. When she attempted to let him out, he instead turned toward the bathroom. She began to open the bathroom door when a male voice startled her: “Don’t come in here, and no one will get hurt.” All Hostetler could see was a hand, in a black glove, poking out from inside the shower. She thought she heard a gun click. As she backed away from the door, the man dashed out a cabana exit that led from the bathroom to the family pool. “Get out of the race,” he shouted as he ran, “and no one will get hurt.” Hostetler called the police and filed a report, but the intruder was never caught. Shaken by the encounter, she nevertheless vowed to continue her campaign.
A few weeks later, in early February, the five-member village council met to consider the proposal for Bellissimo’s equestrian village. Things quickly became contentious, and the debate lasted 20 hours, stretched over three days, the longest council meeting in Wellington history. Over its course Bellissimo agreed to: reduce his hotel from five stories to four; limit the number of seats in the dressage arena to 3,500; build one less barn; and make sure that shows neither started nor ended during rush hour. The council finally voted 4–1 to approve the operating permit, and 3–2 to allow the hotel and commercial elements to move forward, though future approval would still be needed.
The Jacobses were outraged. “I was frankly aghast when I saw the village council was supportive of the development,” Lou Jacobs told me. He made an appointment to see Mayor Bowen, who, as part of his official duties, sat on the council, and who supported the project. “I looked at him and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re supporting this. This is Wellington’s tallest, biggest, densest building, in the heart of what we call a preserve.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘We’re in a recession. I have to do everything I can to get jobs in Wellington.’ And I said, ‘This is crazy. You’re never going to get this green space back.’ And that’s when we said we have to do something, and get active politically.”
Three days after the Wellington council approved Bellissimo’s plan, the Jacobs-owned corporate entity Solar Sportsystems donated $100,000 to a group called Taxpayers for Integrity in Government—essentially, a Jacobs-controlled PAC. Its focus was the March village-council elections. As Lou put it to me, “We had a slate of candidates who were supportive of our position.” The candidates were Bob Margolis, for mayor, and John Greene and Matt Willhite, for village council. In the following weeks, Solar Sportsystems gave another $400,000 or so to Taxpayers for Integrity in Government, as well as $93,920 to the Palm Beach County Democratic Party, which was active in the race on the Jacobs candidates’ behalf. And finally, Jacobs family members and related interests in Buffalo made about $35,000 in donations of their own directly to the campaign accounts of their favored candidates. Add it all up and, at the same time that Jeremy Jacobs was gearing up for the National Hockey League’s impending player lockout (during which he’d emerge as one of the ownership group’s most aggressive hardliners), he led the charge on more than $625,000 in political donations in a small Florida village. (In Boston, City Councillor Ayanna Pressley spent $190,000 on her most recent campaign.)
The Jacobs group blanketed the village with mailers and radio and TV ads, primarily targeting Mayor Bowen. Bowen said he felt overwhelmed. “The ads were portraying me as a crook,” he recalled. “I’d go to a restaurant for lunch, and if they had a TV in the place, three or four [ads] would pop up on there. They were on every station. They were on ESPN, CNN, they were on everything.”
Bowen was able to raise only about $30,000 to fight back. The local Chamber of Commerce, which supported Bellissimo, chipped in too, but the group’s tone was hardly more encouraging. One Chamber mailer depicted the candidates Jacobs supported as marionettes, with a hunched-over Jacobs, who is of Jewish descent, pulling their strings. “There’s a puppetmaster in town,” the ad read, in part, “and his name is Jeremy Jacobs.”
Georgina Bloomberg, the daughter of Michael Bloomberg and a Bellissimo business partner, said that she’s never seen anything like the political war that’s engulfed Wellington. “There’s definitely more of a personal side to it that is not something I’ve experienced before in politics,” she told me. I reminded her that her father is the mayor of New York City. True, she said, but “usually politicians go against each other for their issues. This has become, I feel, almost more of a personal fight.”
Shauna Hostetler felt the effects. Before the Jacobses started making their political donations, she told me, she was able to engage voters on a variety of issues. But once the spigot opened, the equestrian village became the only thing that mattered. The race’s tone turned bitter. When she was out canvassing neighborhoods, Hostetler said, people she’d never met before would curse at her and slam the door in her face. “It wasn’t like it was a presidential race,” she said. “This is Wellington, Florida.”