Trouble in Wellington for Jeremy Jacobs
For a quarter-century, the Boston Bruins owner ruled the clubby equestrian scene in Wellington, Florida. From his palatial estate, he fought to keep the exclusive community the way he wanted. Then Mark Bellissimo appeared. The two men have declared war—and the fate of the town hangs in the balance.
The village of Wellington, Florida, is unlike just about anywhere else. The northern part is a typical-enough bedroom community, just west of West Palm Beach. But the southern stretch, officially designated an “equestrian preserve,” is a strange parallel universe where horses rule supreme. Here the super-rich are common—Bill Gates, Athina Onassis, Georgina Bloomberg, and Bruce Springsteen are all regulars. But they get scant attention compared with the horses. Diamond yellow street signs warn of their crossings, and it’s normal to see mounted riders just cantering down the road, on their way to one of the area’s many polo fields or riding rings. The preserve’s anchor is the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, a sprawling show-jumping complex that’s home to what organizers boast is the largest horse show in existence. Wellington’s population is 57,000, but the Winter Equestrian Festival, as the 12-week competition is called, each year draws 15,000 additional people from the world over.
Horse owners pay a fortune for properties within a few miles of the equestrian center, so that they can easily walk their animals to the grounds. And though the multimillion-dollar horse mansions they build on the lots are called barns, as I learned when I recently visited Wellington, they aren’t the type that Old MacDonald would recognize. “My goal one day,” Village Manager Paul Schofield told me, “is to own a house that’s as nice as some of those barns.” A Spanish Mission Revival–style job on 13 acres near the show grounds—with stalls for 18 horses—is currently listed at $27 million.
The main axis of the preserve is Pierson Road, with the International Equestrian Center sitting at its far western end. Two miles down the road to the east lies Deeridge Farm, the 200-acre estate of Jeremy Jacobs, the notoriously short-tempered and combative billionaire owner of the Boston Bruins. At 73, Jacobs, who is also the chairman and CEO of Delaware North, a Buffalo-based international concessions, hospitality, and gaming conglomerate, no longer rides himself. But he once did, avidly, and his children and grandchildren have followed suit. He bought the first parcel of his compound—the centerpiece of which is a 21,000-square-foot mansion—in 1979, and three generations of his family have dominated the clubby horse sport scene in Wellington ever since.
Deeridge Farm takes its inspiration from the family’s spread in East Aurora, New York, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. But the place feels made for horses as much as people. Gracious riding paths weave their way through the grounds, and a rustic horse barn sits near the front of the estate, set beside a ring for jumping practice. (One of the obstacles is outfitted with Bruins logos.) All told, about 25 horses live on the property, and the family keeps another 15 or so at the International Equestrian Center.
Deeridge Farm has long served as an annual winter refuge for Jacobs. He is known as a difficult man, and this was his soothing paradise—that is, until a wealthy developer from Boston named Mark Bellissimo showed up in town, full of big ideas.
As the residents of Wellington would come to learn, this made Jacobs very angry.
Bellissimo, who is 51, grew up in Natick, and attended Andover Academy, Middlebury College, and Harvard Business School. He played hockey in college, and, despite his ritzy résumé, he has the mentality of someone much more likely to square off with an opponent at center ice than to sit prissily atop a horse. Actually, horses didn’t come into his life until the mid-’90s, when he sent his daughters to an equestrian camp near his summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee. Soon his wife was riding, too, and the family began making frequent trips to Wellington. At the time, Bellissimo was the CEO of a sales-force automation company called Brandwise. In 2004, during a merger with a Denver company, he and his wife decided that the time was right for a major change. They sold their home in Weston and moved full time to Wellington. But it was hardly a blind plunge. Bellissimo already had plans.
In those days, the Winter Equestrian Festival was a relatively small affair, held each year, as it is today, at the International Equestrian Center. But back then the riding ring was a simple grass field that would get so torn up by season’s end that it became treacherous for horses. There were no stands for spectators and, really, few permanent facilities of any kind. “They used to have port-a-potties everywhere,” Bellissimo told me.
The late Gene Mische, the founder and majority owner of a company called Stadium Jumping, which operated the festival in those days, was in many ways a visionary. He’d recognized how popular an elite sport like equestrianism could be in a community like Wellington. But he was also a terrible businessman. Fortunately for him, the Jacobses were the second-largest shareholders in the company, and they weren’t particularly concerned about its bottom line (an attitude that anyone who’s ever paid $8 for a beer at the Garden probably wishes the family would apply to the Bruins). “It was an undercapitalized, small venture,” said Lou Jacobs, Jeremy’s son, who serves as an executive at Delaware North and is a former rider himself. “None of us were in it for financial gain. It was something we enjoyed doing for a pastime, as a family.” (Delaware North did not make Jeremy Jacobs available to comment for this story. The company referred me instead to Lou.)
Nevertheless, the festival managed to draw plenty of money to town. In 2005, for instance, it injected an estimated $57 million into the local economy. Bellissimo saw tremendous untapped potential for profit. “There’s a passion here for horse sport,” he told me. “I thought, If you harnessed this passion, and you created a product that was respectful of the people that participate in this sport, you could create a very, very significant business.”
At the center of that business was the International Equestrian Center, where, Bellissimo realized, upscale vendors and advertisers might pay a fortune for access to the wealthy clientele. Better yet, if he owned the land surrounding the main arena, he could increase its value by improving the quality of the equestrian competitions and lengthening the jumping season, both of which would give affluent horse owners an incentive to buy land and barns nearby, driving prices up.
The Jacobs family spent over half a million dollars on Wellington’s municipal elections. “Would I do it all over again?” Lou Jacobs says. “Absolutely.”
Bellissimo moved quickly. In 2006, just after New Year’s, he shocked Wellington by striking a deal with the notoriously difficult developer Glenn Straub to buy the show grounds and the surrounding area for $135 million. In all, he would acquire 500 acres and make plans for an equestrian mecca, complete with an overhauled facility, 350 homes, and 255,000 square feet of commercial space.
But buying the property turned out to be the easy part. Bellissimo had the land, but the festival was still operated by Stadium Jumping, the company owned by Gene Mische and his minority partner, the Jacobs family. The United States Equestrian Federation tightly regulates the dates that different venues can host events, and, in Wellington, the show dates “belonged” to Stadium Jumping. Without those dates, the equestrian center was useless. Bellissimo courted Mische. He made him a partner on the land purchase and, in the process, struck a deal for the dates: In exchange for a profit-sharing arrangement, Mische agreed to a 30-year lease with Bellissimo’s new company, Wellington Equestrian Partners.
The Jacobses were furious. They considered Bellissimo a businessman, not a horseman. “We disagreed about the mission,” Lou Jacobs told me. “He was going to build a clubhouse. He wanted valet parking for horses. It just got to the point where I said, This guy really doesn’t understand the sport. From my view at the outset, it was all about development.”
As minority stakeholders in Mische’s company, the Jacobses were technically powerless to stop the deal. But they weren’t helpless. Mische, it turned out, had used $2.75 million of company money to purchase his house. In July 2006, the Jacobses’ lawyers sent him a letter alleging that he had been treating the company they owned together as “his bank for funds whenever needed.” Mische soon tried to back out of his agreement with Bellissimo.
Bellissimo argued that Mische was bound to their deal and, as each side dug in, the Jacobses and Mische threatened to pack up and find somewhere else to stage the Winter Equestrian Festival. A slew of lawsuits followed. Perhaps feeling shaky about their legal standing, the Jacobses agreed to negotiation and, finally, on November 21, 2007, a settlement was reached. The precise terms were never disclosed, but the agreement was so long and complicated that Bellissimo’s lawyer claimed that he had to sign it more than 1,000 times.
The end result: Bellissimo owned the show dates. He had stared down Jeremy Jacobs and won.
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.”
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 Councilor 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.”
Five days before the election, Al Paglia, one of the pro-Bellissimo candidates, had his house broken into. A burglar smashed through his back door and made off with about $2,500 worth of jewelry. “Very coincidental that two people got broken into,” Paglia said, referencing what happened to Hostetler. “I don’t want to speculate. I don’t think they would stoop to that level.”
The Jacobses denied any connection to the break-ins, and there’s no evidence to suggest any. But I did ask Lou if he has any regrets over the effects of his family’s political spending. “None of us wants to come down here and pick a fight,” he said. “No one wants to fight over this stuff. But if we don’t, who is going to? If we don’t, what’s at risk? So do I wish it never happened? Of course I do. I wish [Bellissimo] had never made the proposal. I wish he’d never chosen that particular site for Wellington’s largest commercial complex. I wish it had never gotten into this contentious situation. Would I do it all over again? Absolutely.”
Election day arrived on March 13, 2012. This being Palm Beach County, everything got screwed up. The initial reports were that Bob Margolis had defeated Bowen in a landslide, and that Hostetler and Paglia had won. The results seemed off, and everyone lawyered up. Per local custom, there was a hand re-count. Finally, at the end of March, the entire Jacobs slate was officially declared victorious. Bowen lost by just 70 votes out of 5,824 ballots cast. With a turnout that low, it seems likely that the Jacobs money had an impact. “Everybody knows now that you can buy the town,” Hostetler told me. “You can buy a vote.”
Even with the results, Bellissimo planned to move ahead with the commercial elements of his project. He was already holding dressage competitions at the site, and the reviews had been good. But then he made a simple but very costly mistake. On March 31, he missed a deadline to complete what’s called a plat of the property—a survey, in effect. He insists that the village lawyer had told him the deadline wasn’t firm, but, in any case, he now had to go answer to the village council—a council that was now very different than the one that had first approved the project.
“He blew it,” Lou Jacobs told me. “He gave us another bite of the apple.”
When Bellissimo appeared before the village council on May 22, his allies were out, and the Jacobs-supported candidates were in. Knowing this, he’d announced the week before that he was taking the planned hotel off the table, at least for the time being.
The council had a choice. It could either grant Bellissimo a fairly routine extension on the plat, or it could revoke the entire approval of his master plan. With the Jacobs-backed faction in the majority, the board voted 3–2 to kill the project. The unbuilt hotel and commercial elements were dead. Then in July, the council voted 3–2 to shut down the dressage operations, too (though it later allowed them to remain open through the end of the current season, which concludes this month). Starting next month, the brand-new complex stands to be a very fancy white elephant. “This was a personal, vindictive action,” Bellissimo told me.
Mayor Bob Margolis and the councilors John Greene and Matt Willhite steadfastly maintain that their votes were unaffected by the support they received from Jacobs. Citing litigation against Wellington, Margolis initially declined to speak with me. The mayor later changed his mind, agreeing to be interviewed as long as he had a village lawyer present. We all met in the office conference room of Mason Phelps, the Jacobs spokesman.
“If Mr. Bellissimo had platted the property in a timely manner,” Margolis told me, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. I am a process-oriented man.” Margolis acknowledged, though, that he couldn’t think of another example of a business’s having its permits revoked for missing a routine deadline.
Margolis insisted that he’d opposed Bellissimo’s project before the Jacobses began backing his candidacy. “I’ve met Jeremy Jacobs and his family three times in my entire life,” he said. When I asked Margolis why we were meeting in the offices of a Jacobs family spokesman, he replied that the village offices were closed for the weekend. There were certainly other options, I noted, adding that our current location might give the wrong impression. “I don’t think it looks bad,” he said. “It doesn’t look bad at all.”
As we spoke, Margolis was embroiled in a controversy of his own. The day before voting to revoke Bellissimo’s master plan, in May, he’d deposited a $2,500 check into a legal-defense fund set up in the aftermath of the election. The check came from Neil Hirsch, a businessman who served as director of the Jacobs group, the Equestrian Preservation Alliance. In July, Margolis also received a $4,000 donation from Victoria McCullough, a Jacobs ally whose lawyer had lobbied the council in May. In Florida, elected officials are not supposed to take more than $100 from lobbying interests, but Margolis argued that, in the case of the money from McCullough, he’d originally accepted the check from her in March, before he took office and before she was officially lobbying—but that he’d lost the check. The new one, he said, was merely a replacement. The Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics has cleared him on that count and he agreed to return the money. The commission would not comment, though, on whether it was still investigating the Hirsch donation. Bellissimo said that he’s filed an additional ethics complaint asking for renewed scrutiny of the contributions.
Another Jacobs-supported council member, John Greene, had a similar problem. He’d also accepted a $4,000 check for his legal-defense fund from McCullough in March and, just like Margolis, was cleared. Greene’s dealings with Hirsch also raised questions. On June 9, in need of temporary housing, Greene moved in with Hirsch, an old friend. The Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics later found that Hirsch had given Greene nearly $3,000 worth of housing, more than $3,000 toward a vacation, and $450 that was used for a Boys & Girls Club gala. All of that would have broken ethics rules, except that the day before Greene moved in, Hirsch had sent a one-sentence resignation email to the Preservation Alliance. That was just over a month before the final vote to revoke Bellissimo’s permit. Again, Bellissimo says he’s filed a separate complaint, but the Palm Beach ethics commission has cleared Greene of the Hirsch-related charges, too.
Today, the Bellissimo-Jacobs feud is tied up in the courts. The Jacobses have sued for the right to have the equestrian village torn down, and Bellissimo has sued for the right to operate it. The village council, meanwhile, seems content to wait and let all of the litigation play out. Attempts at mediation, predictably, have failed. Whether the whole thing will be resolved by next January, when the next dressage season begins—or doesn’t begin—is anyone’s guess.
Last August, Lou Jacobs wrote an open letter to Bellissimo detailing the conditions under which he would accept a dressage-only facility. There could be no “concerts, laser- and strobe-light shows, special effects, fireworks, live entertainment or other disruptive, non-equestrian entertainment,” he wrote. All dressage events would have to end before 6 p.m. on weekdays and 9 p.m. on weekends, and “the use of amplification devices or loudspeakers, or the amplified projection of announcements or music” would have to be banned between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.
“Pretty much, I didn’t have to respond,” Bellissimo said when I asked about the letter. “Who are you guys to determine what people do here, and who can use their property? At the end of the day, this property was bought for $37 million.”
As the two sides wage their war, the rest of Wellington is paying the price. The village, still cash-strapped in the wake of the recession, has had to set aside an extra $600,000 for the coming fiscal year to deal with legal fees related to the feud. “That’s just what we pay the lawyers,” Schofield, the village manager, told me. “That doesn’t include the staff time.” Margolis has estimated that village staffers spend more than half their hours working on equestrian issues. It’s frustrating, he said, because those outside the equestrian district are much more concerned with schools, policing, and finances.
Shuttering the dressage facility would cost the village about 50 jobs, Bellissimo said, and would send top-quality horses and riders elsewhere. Then there’s the local residents—from veterinarians to stable workers to photographers—who depend on the competitions. “I find it very sad,” said Anja Plönzke, a champion dressage competitor from Germany who was in Wellington for the season. “The facility is great.” Her husband, Roland Bauer, was confused by the state of affairs. A few days earlier, Charles Jacobs had ridden in an event held at the dressage complex. (“Charlie Jacobs Competes at Show Grounds He Wants Torn Down,” blared the headline on Dressage-news.com, a website that’s sympathetic to Bellissimo.)
“Mr. Jacobs is even riding there,” Bauer said. “How can it be?”
On my final night in town, I visited the International Equestrian Center to take in Bellissimo’s Saturday-night show. Walking the grounds, I saw kids careening around in a bouncy house, riding the carousel, and sitting still just long enough to get their faces painted. The Tiki Hut was packed. While the riders—looking prim in their black dress uniforms and helmets—warmed up their horses, a cover band wheezed out the Eagles’ greatest hits. The Jumbotron showed a kiss cam. I was surprised, though, at how much chatter I heard about the actual competition. Michael Stone, the president of Bellissimo’s operation, told me that he thinks about half the crowd comes for the spectacle and fun, and about half are real fans. In any case, kids were being introduced to the sport, and the bustle seemed a dramatic improvement from when Bellissimo took over and all his new, blue plastic seats were empty. “The local public are starting to understand it,” Stone said. “You can hear how quiet they are when the horses are jumping, and then they cheer.”
Making my way into the International Club, I ran into Lou Jacobs and his wife, Joan, who were sitting at a friend’s table. They’d been unable to reserve an International Club table of their own this season. According to Bellissimo, they missed the application deadline.
While most of the VIP crowd mingled, Lou was focused on the jumping action. “This is what Mark does really well,” he conceded, waving an arm at Bellissimo’s lit-up turf in front of him. From there, he broke down each competitor’s strengths for me. When one of his daughter’s friends entered the ring, he leaned through every turn and jump with her. By evening’s end, he was in high spirits. But when I asked one last question about the equestrian-village dispute, his voice turned thin. What I couldn’t get over, I said, was how the area where Bellissimo wanted to build was just a grubby lot across from a strip mall. What principle of preservation was at risk? “I’m not totally about, you know, preserving a dirt field,” he replied. “It’s just about what does this look like, conceptually, 15 years from now.”
In other words, it’s not about any one development—it’s about competing visions for the future of Wellington and, in a sense, equestrianism itself. Bellissimo believes that treating the sport as a business is the only way for it to grow and flourish. The Jacobses, on the other hand, long for the clubbier old days, when earning money and attracting crowds was secondary to protecting a certain lifestyle. It’s a bizarre position in which to find the NHL’s most notorious fiscal hardliners. But then, nothing in Wellington makes much sense.
While the lawsuits crawl along, there’s another village-council election in less than a year. Anne Gerwig, one of the remaining pro-Bellissimo councilors, told me that she’ll run again, despite the migraines she’s been getting since the beginning of the controversy. She’s sure, though, that the Jacobses will target her, and that she’ll lose.
Lou Jacobs confirmed that his family will be active again come election time. “We’re certainly going to advocate,” he said. For his part, Bellissimo promised that he won’t get caught off-guard this time by a last-minute Jacobs blitz. “We will do what it takes,” he told me, “to educate the people in what the facts are.”
In other words, the two opposing sides are only getting warmed up. It makes you wonder: If all this goes on much longer, just how much lifestyle—equestrian or otherwise—will Wellington have left to preserve?
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2013/03/26/jeremy-jacobs-mark-bellissimo-wellington-florida/