Florida’s New Multimillion Dollar Dressage Grounds “Jeopardized” by Local Government Revoking Approvals

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Palm Beach International Equestrian Center's Global Dressage Festival grounds and jumper derby field. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Florida’s new Global Dressage Festival grounds on which several million dollars have already been invested has had approvals revoked by a newly elected local government that the organizers said Wednesday “jeopardizes” the future of dressage in Wellington but hopes to salvage the project.

“What has happened jeopardizes dressage in Wellington,” said Mark Bellissimo who heads up the group that owns and operates the showgrounds that host the new Global Dressage Festival and the long established, world famous Winter Equestrian Festival of jumper and hunter competitions. Only the dressage complex is affected.

“We are disappointed by the action,” he said of the action he labeled “punitive.”

“We are hopeful all the council members will live up to their stated commitments to support dressage in Wellington.

“We expected a more collaborative approach to the process and are hopeful that we can resolve this issue for the good of the community and the sport.”

The vote by the newly elected majority of the Village of Wellington council Tuesday night sparked an outpouring of emails and text messages to newspapers and Internet sites expressing shock and disgust at the vote. Many were from opponents of proposed commercial development on the 96-acre (34Ha) grounds that previously contained two polo fields and a large permanent grandstand that was torn down after it was severaly damaged in a series of hurricanes.

The vote by the three members making up the majority of the five-member council reversed approval by a previous council months ago. It rejected an extension of a filing deadline for some paperwork required by that approval. The documents had sat in the office of the government attorney ahead of the deadline but he did not process them for several weeks while dealing with other issues including a botched election that ultimately resulted in the three members taking control of the council. A recommendation by the government officials to extend the deadline was rejected.

Bob Margolis, the new mayor, said: “The rules cannot be bent for just a few people. There’s only so much air a balloon can take before it explodes. They are rules made for everybody. We’re tired of looking the other way. There has to be a time when we say, ‘no more’.”

The vice mayor, Howard Coates. who originally voted for development and was in support of extending the filing deadline, described the vote as “politically motivated… scorched earth” action. “I don’t like it when I feel like this council is being used as a pawn for some ulterior motive,” he said.

Equestrian Sport Productions that stages the dressage, jumper and hunter competitions in the world’s largest winter circuit at the Palm Beach Center announced two weeks ago it was shelving plans for a new resort hotel at the complex but instead would concentrate on the dressage grounds.

Plans for the hotel had divided Wellington, a community of about 55,000 people, and led to formation of an opposition group primarily funded by the Jacobs family that owns a large farm near the show grounds and controls one of the largest privately-held corporations in the United States. It operates gambling casinos, dog and horse tracks, food and hospitality services to sports stadiums, airports and national parks and owns the Boston Bruins that won last season’s Stanley Cup.

The group funded the three candidates to replace council members who had approved the so-called Master Plan for the dressage grounds, the condominium hotel and a retail plaza and were up for re-election.

Since the election, occupany certificates for the facility have been withdrawn, meaning it cannot be used.

All three council members who voted against what is normally routine approval of an extension–research found that denials of such requests are extremely rare and are denied only after years of delays–insisted that they supported dressage and believed ways could be worked out with ESP to enable the facility to proceed. They were joined by the attorney for the opponents who said they supported the sport but were against extending the deadline.

The dressage facilty was built on fields where Prince Charles watched by his then-wife Princess Diana played polo and helped lead to the growth of Wellington as one of the world’s major horse sport centers. The fields had not been used for polo for several years and were bought five years ago to become part of the Palm Beach equestrian center.

ESP spent an estimated $8 million (€6.3 million) in the past year constructing hundreds of permanent stables, one of the largest covered arenas in the world, five outdoor arenas with state-of-the-art footing, paved access roads and a raised spectator deck in time for the 2012 winter circuit.

The circuit included five CDIs–the only CDI5* in the Americas in 2012 and the first non-championship Nations Cup in the Western Hemisphere–with almost $300,000 (€240,000) in prize money.

The 2013 calendar was shaping up to be even bigger with a growing number of top European riders stating that the big draw to South Florida’s warm winters was the quality of the new facility in Wellington and prize money among the highest in the world for dressage.

Problems for the Global Dressage Festival are the latest for dressage in South Florida.

John Goodman, whose International Polo Club provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to present the World Dressage Masters Palm Beach for the past two years, was recently sentenced to 16 years in prison as a result of an auto accident in Wellington. He is free on a multimillion bond but is restricted from some high profile celebrity activities awaiting an appeal.