Focus Group Comments On Wellington’s Equestrian Future

A focus group meeting was held Friday, May 31 with a handful of local equestrians regarding Wellington’s Parks Master Plan, a project being worked on by the village with the consulting firm Aecom to come up with future plans for parks and recreation initiatives.

At the meeting, held at the Wellington Community Center, Aecom consultant Joseph Webb described how input from the community will help build the Parks Master Plan. This equestrian focus group included Harry Knopp, Jane Cleveland and Luis Gutierrez.

“As part of our public input, we welcome the open public meetings, but we also try to drill down and understand certain aspects, critical parts of the system and focus of the community,” Webb said.

Knopp, from Ida Farm, began by questioning whether the equestrian community even falls under Wellington’s Parks & Recreation Department. “I don’t know if that department can really do anything to help the equestrians,” he said.

Webb said that the plan will be broader than just a single village department.

“I don’t want to restrict you to think of it as a department,” he said. “We may have to redefine what that department is. Truthfully, it is the umbrella of recreation and leisure.”

Cleveland serves as chair of Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Committee.

“As far as I understand, Parks & Recreation is non-equestrian,” she said. “These [parks] are all play fields. It covers 100 percent families, to the point that plans for land adjacent to the dog park could have been a competition venue, but the community is getting more fields. My view, coming out of the gate, is that it is 100 percent families and children, zero percent equestrians.”

Other than horse trails, which come under the jurisdiction of the Parks & Recreation Department, the department has little to do with equestrians, she said.

“We have an unbelievable park system of ball fields around Wellington,” Cleveland said. “They are unbelievable, but I think the horse community helps to pay for it. I have never seen so many fields, but it’s not for us. The equestrians have very few children here.”

She would like to see more park space reserved for adults and adult activities.

“The park on Flying Cow is incredible,” she said, referring to the Wellington Environmental Preserve at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Everglades Habitat. “However, I don’t think anyone knows about it. There is no park to gather in. I think the village gets so focused on families.”

Knopp suggested that if the village wants to have a hand in equestrian sports, it should get into the industry in a much bigger way.

“If the topic is how Parks & Recreation can impact equestrian sports in Wellington, I would say the biggest thing is to take over the horse show,” he said. “Buy the partners out and take it to another level.”

Cleveland agreed that there is only so much the village can do if all the venues are privately held.

“Most towns that have a public interest like this, they own the facilities,” she said.

Knopp agreed. “If you want to control Wellington’s destiny in the next 50 years, then take over the venues and make them a Wellington-owned property,” he said. “Make it beautiful, so we can attract the rest of the world to come here. We need to go to the next level.”

Knopp gave credit to horse show promoter Mark Bellissimo for his achievements but noted that he is a businessman and doesn’t run the venues as a public trust.

“I think Bellissimo has done a lot for the town. But at the end of the day, they are a group of investors who have secured the horse show dates, they have secured all of the venues and they have tried to build some things,” Knopp said. “And then they want to buy up land and build houses and expensive barns. They are developers. They use the venue to get what they want.”

If the village wants to control its own destiny, it would need to control the shows, he said.

“If Wellington wanted to take over that control, they would have to own the facilities and would have to own the show dates,” Knopp said. “Then they would have total control over the future of this town.”

Luis Gutierrez, a local equestrian who designs stables, said that equestrians pay more than their fair share.

“Equestrians bring a huge percent of the tax revenue. The taxes that we pay, it’s crazy. This is the best place to ride in the world, but it’s hot,” he said.

Knopp suggested that perhaps the village could invest in an enclosed, climate-controlled arena.

“If this would happen, people would stay here longer,” he said. “What we have here is a very unique place. Equestrians made this town. If the facilities were kick butt, it would be bigger revenues for the town.”

Cleveland said that she worries about the future, particularly regarding the International Polo Club. “I worry, if we lose IPC with the competition from the new polo league, then where does that leave us?” she asked.

Gutierrez said because of the location, many more equestrians from Europe would come for the season if the facilities were nicer. “Everyone needs to keep in mind it is hot, and horses and riders are compromised in the heat without ample shade and riding facilities that are temperature gauged,” he said.

Gutierrez also said there are other things that Wellington could do to improve its equestrian infrastructure.

“Using the trails is difficult. For young horses, you cannot cross the roads. It is dangerous. We hope that the village understands that what we have here is internationally known horses and riders,” he said. “It’s a great place, and we don’t have many Wellingtons in the world. It should be a place that is safe for kids and horses to go from the show grounds or anywhere and connect. We don’t have that yet.”

Connectivity in the equestrian area remains an issue, Gutierrez said.

“We should have more places for grooms to use bikes and golf carts, so we don’t have more cars,” he said. “We have thousands of golf carts during season. There’s a huge amount of people who come to Wellington in season… We do not have connectivity for these people so that it is easy for them.”

Gutierrez added that Wellington needs to rethink that entire issue.

“Off season, a lot of people leave town because there is really no way to ride out in this weather,” he said. “The landscape on the trails is awful. We get really hot, so taking the horses out is impossible. We could have more trees for shade. We could ask each community to take part so everyone can benefit. Not just the village, but the community, so we can cross over properties and enjoy the land. I think we could do something really interesting in this city.”

Equestrians and the general public still have time to give input. There is a survey available online at www.surveymonkey.com/r/WellingtonParksSurvey. The survey is voluntary and will take approximately 15 minutes to complete. Answers are completely confidential.

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