Wellington Horse Event Organizer Submits Plans to Create New Commercial Zoning for Show Grounds
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By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
The prime organizer of dressage, jumper and polo competitions in Wellington, Florida that has become the world’s leading winter equestrian destination has proposed creating a new equestrian commercial zoning district that would permit construction of hotels and other development to build a year-round sports based economy.
The proposal has been made to the Village of Wellington by Mark Bellissimo, who heads up groups that have invested $300 million over the past decade in buying and developing the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center hosting the Global Dressage Festival and the Winter Equestrian Festival as well as the International Polo Club and other venues.
The proposal stresses that it would not change the character or lead to “paving over parks” of the area of 9,000 acres (3,640Ha) in Wellington, known as the Equestrian Preserve and the location of hundreds of mostly small horse farms.
The aim, the proposal states, is to allow only properties designated equestrian commercial–such as the three show grounds–to develop commercial properties–hotels, condominiums and permanent horse stables–to accommodate the thousands of visitors that flock to Wellington from around the world for the horse shows each winter. The largest amateur soccer and field hockey tournaments in the United States were staged at the polo grounds last summer, but most participants had to find accommodations outside Wellington, adding to traffic congestion and loss of revenue for the local community.
The proposal comes after 10 years of ownership by the Bellissimo groups of the Winter Equestrian Festival that has outgrown the main show grounds, creation of the Global circuit now in its sixth year as the world’s largest dressage circuit of seven CDIs and richest with almost $700,000 in prize money and the 2016 acquisition of the polo grounds on which will be built a new and larger permanent home for dressage a year from now.
In that time, the Jacobs family with an estate near the Global grounds has sought through the courts to have the dressage facility torn down, funded political opponents of the horse shows that were ousted after one term of four years and, according to the Palm Beach Post, will fight the latest move.
The rapid growth of equestrian sport in Wellington in the past decade has led to an explosion of horse shows. The Jacobs family is hosting a World Cup jumping event on its own estate, a thriving national level dressage circuit is at White Fences in neighboring Loxahatchee and expansion of a separate jumper/hunter circuit to include dressage schooling shows this year are scheduled for the taxpayer-owned Jim Brandon center in West Palm Beach.
The Bellissimo proposal is being fast-tracked in an effort to get it approved by about the end of April. But the proposed changes require votes in favor of four of the five members of the local government council to send it to the Florida state government for endorsement.
The current piecemeal approach to the equestrian community cannot continue, Mark Bellissimo said, if Wellington is to develop enough to provide economic opportunity for businesses and year-round jobs.
“A successful well-executed plan could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars of new investment to Wellington as well as hundreds, if not thousands of jobs, (including construction),” he said in support of changes to build commercial enterprises while rationalizing traffic patterns.
“These investments could impact Wellington with spill over to Palm Beach County for many decades with the development of one of the world’s great year-round equestrian lifestyle and resort destinations, a destination unique in the world.”
He has enlisted the active support of 25 business and community leaders including representatives from the Mall at Wellington Green and Wellington Regional Medical Center to residents of some of the biggest homeowners associations.
As well as eliminating or streamlining approvals required every year to erect temporary facilities, a change in zoning would allow construction of permanent buildings.
“…there needs to be an expansion of the permitted uses with the commercial recreation property that includes hotels, condo(miniums)s, condo/hotels, and apartments…which will much more effectively serve market needs and ensure long term success for the equestrian Industry.”
“Wellington has reached a threshold point in its progress toward becoming a top-tier national and international equestrian destination,” the proposal said, with WEF alone estimated to have an economic impact of $200 million a year and generating more than 125,000 bed nights, although only 8,000 of those are within Wellington because of a lack of hotels. Dressage and polo are not included in those numbers.
“There is widespread positive economic impact on virtually every business in Wellington as these events bring in individuals with high discretionary income into an equestrian domain that has demonstrated that it has one of the most recession resistant populations in the world. This has been evidenced by the stable performance of the shows throughout the years following the financial crisis which began in 2008.”
Although the proposal did not say so, failure to approve changes in Wellington is expected to lead to more focus on the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina which will host the 2018 World Equestrian Games in a last-minute rescue of the quadrennial showcase of international horse sports after Bromont in Canada dropped out last summer.
Adopting equestrian commercial zoning, according to the proposal, will also:
–Expand the duration of the equestrian season and for the rest of the year by creating a destination resort at the current Global grounds with its covered arena and permanent horse stalls;
–Attract new events such as championships, tournaments, new equestrian disciplines, summer camps and clinics many which require on-site lodging while other events, like reining, require a covered arena;
–Generate new economic activity with trade shows, special events, industry conferences, annual meetings, event sponsorship to leverage the covered arena as exhibition space and expose a more diverse population to Wellington;
–Leverage “turf” assets to promote off season participation in large non-equestrian events that require lodging and hospitality such as field hockey, soccer, lacrosse and archery competitions, and
–Enhanced Palm Beach Riding Academy to provide a pathway to draw more people into horse sport, tied into equi-tourism promoted by state and local resources.
The proposal said the changes “will dramatically increase the worldwide stature of Wellington and position it for the 2026 World Equestrian Games.”
“The key to sustaining the equestrian industry is to provide a balance of properties in Wellington that can accommodate horse farms, commercial equestrian land uses and equestrian venues along with their ancillary and supporting land uses,” it said. “This necessarily includes the development of flexible land use regulations for the growth and sustainability of the large equestrian venues, the life blood of Wellington’s equestrian industry.”
The complete “justification” statement by Mark Bellissimo in support of the proposed changes is available here: Justification_v3 2