Much has been written as the Village of Wellington and the Jacobs’ “spin team” have been aggressive in communicating the permitting challenges for this year’s Winter Equestrian Festival. We have certainly had our challenges and made some mistakes that didn’t occur in prior years. What has not been discussed is a decision made by the Village of Wellington that affected this year’s permitting process.
WEF is the largest equestrian festival in the world. The event contributes well over $200 million of annual economic impact to Palm Beach County and provides thousands of jobs to the community. In order to prepare for this 12-week event, thousands of interactions are necessary, including permit requests, design and architectural review meetings, building, engineering and fire inspections; landscaping reviews; water and land management permits; and more to support the tens of thousands of participants who enjoy the event.
Councilman John Greene, Mayor Bob Margolis and Councilman Matt Willhite (the Gang of Three), who form the majority of the Wellington Village Council, in concert with Jacobs’ PR team, point to a former village council that they claim was “lax” and an “out of control” developer as the reasons for this year’s permitting issues. However, the true explanation is the elimination of a critical coordinating process by the village called the Equestrian Response Team.
These vital ERT meetings have been in place every year that we have run the festival. Starting each October, every other Tuesday, the ERT would assemble all of our building contractors, our management, personnel from the village departments (planning, zoning, engineering, code compliance, etc.) in an effort to coordinate the thousands of interactions necessary to produce this complex, world-renowned event. Up to 25 people would attend these two-hour meetings. The goal was to navigate the complexity of the setup from permitting and reviews to final inspections while identifying and solving problems before they occur. This important process enabled this unique and complex event to grow and prosper with minimal problems.
Even with the ERT process, there were still challenges related to a village code, which was not designed to address an event of this complexity or scale. But luckily there was always a spirit of cooperation between a competent village staff and our organization, which has been focused on the continued development of this important industry. As a result, over the last five years, our partnership invested well over $40 million in site improvements in Wellington, and the festival doubled both in size and economic impact to the county. All of this occurred during what was probably the worst financial climate of our lifetimes.
Enter the Gang of Three, propped up by over $600,000 in campaign-related contributions from the Jacobs family, Neil Hirsch and Victoria McCullough. Their first effort was an unprecedented revocation of the Equestrian Village dressage venue development approvals led by Hirsch and the Jacobs family. That matter is currently the subject of pending litigation. Next was a failed attempt to revoke rights on the main Palm Beach International Equestrian Center show grounds led by McCullough (whose property abuts the show grounds and is now holding competing shows that are sponsored by Jacobs’ interests, using a questionable approval process). And finally, without notice or explanation, the critical ERT meetings were eliminated. By eliminating these critical ERT meetings, I believe the Gang of Three intentionally created a massive coordination problem with the intent to create process failures to embarrass me and my organization.
Only through the dedication and the outstanding efforts of a very competent village staff and the county fire staff were we able to get the festival up and running this year. For the first time, our collective focus wasn’t on growing and enhancing the event but on struggling to get it operational. I believe the Gang of Three is using village taxpayer money to wage a vindictive private war as payback to its small group of wealthy political allies whose primary “preservation” interests are preserving their great estates. Unfortunately, the collateral damage extends beyond our organization and includes Wellington’s international reputation, disruption to the local economy, declining morale of village staff, higher village operating costs, increased village legal bills and continued inconvenience to festival customers.
No one was prepared for the impact of cancelled ERT meetings. Now that we know this agenda, we can better plan and manage future festivals. However, the question we now face in this community is whether we can stop the Gang of Three before they create irreparable harm to this vital industry, Wellington and Palm Beach County.
Mark Bellissimo, CEO
Equestrian Sport Productions