Mark Bellissimo Pitches ‘Wellington 3.0’ Vision To Village Committees

The ‘Wellington 3.0’ initiative would greatly expand the size of the existing showgrounds.

By Charles Elmore

On some of the last land remaining to determine its future for decades to come, Wellington’s equestrian community gallops toward one of its biggest moments of consequence since the future King Charles came to play polo in 1985.

At least, that’s the way Mark Bellissimo frames it. Sticking with the status quo — meaning, as he puts it, selling 5-acre farms to the wealthy elite — will not help Wellington fend off challenges from expanding rival equestrian centers, such as Ocala.

The managing partner of Wellington Equestrian Partners LLC, Bellissimo instead wants to consolidate dressage and jumping events at one improved venue, build a four-story hotel, restaurants and retail shops anchoring an equestrian downtown, and develop housing near the showgrounds that is more densely concentrated than current rules allow.

One touted bonus: a projected 3,100 jobs, both direct hires and employment from ripple effects in the community.

In a plan Bellissimo has dubbed “Wellington 3.0,” the goal is to make the community not just the winter equestrian capital of the world but the No. 1 location year-round encompassing polo, show jumping and dressage.

This was the pitch he made to a joint meeting of Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Committee and Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board on Wednesday, Sept. 7.

“Let’s bring in a lot of new people and give them a great experience,” Bellissimo said. “I want this to be a place that’s unbelievably special not only for equestrians but non-equestrians.”

The workshop did not include comments from the public. That opportunity will come as village boards and ultimately the Wellington Village Council are expected to take up the plan, which is broken into several different parts, in the coming months. Certain aspects of the proposal will require a supermajority of four out of five council members.

For now, the presentation of his plan includes provisional nicknames for proposed developments such as “the Island,” “the Lagoon” and “the Market.” Such names could change, and more precise details are anticipated in formal proposals to seek village approval. Bellissimo said he hopes final approval comes as early as the end of the year.

A previous effort to remake the equestrian area in 2016 stalled as some residents questioned the need for changes that might bring more traffic and congestion and, in the eyes of doubters, detract from what makes Wellington special.

Equestrian Preserve Committee Member Ben Myers asked what Bellissimo would say to people who are accustomed to the rustic atmosphere in the village’s equestrian areas, with its dusty trails and use of temporary tent stalls when needed.

“Some horsemen just like Wellington the way it is,” Myers said, adding that the sentiment he sometimes hears is, “We don’t want Ocala.”

Myers said he brought it up, “because I am running into some of that.”

Bellissimo said that he understands those concerns, but some change is inevitable.

“We want to be respectful to the feel of this place, but, in general, there needs to be some evolution,” he said.

A hotel, retail shops and other amenities, and more housing close to equestrian facilities, can help more people get and stay engaged, he said. Sponsors want to bring clients, but often must find accommodations for them in West Palm Beach, Palm Beach and other locations, and then transport them to Wellington, Bellissimo said.

Even some of the smaller housing units proposed might cost $1 million or more, with many in the $5 million range, he said, but these still represent alternatives to buying a full-fledged farm. The idea is to reach a group of buyers who are not necessarily competitive riders themselves, but are relocating after the pandemic or otherwise attracted to the equestrian atmosphere. Such buyers might want access to stables provided in the proposals, but primarily for recreation and trail riding.

In addition, he said, the status quo already produces traffic and congestion woes during events, as horses, trailers and people cram constricted arteries such as Pierson Road and South Shore Blvd. He is pitching ideas such as a bridge over Pierson that would accommodate people walking, jogging or driving golf carts to help relieve automobile traffic.

Bellissimo, a Boston native with a background in software and technology businesses, said he began coming to Wellington in 2000 with his four children and “fell in love with the place,” becoming a full-time resident in 2004.

In 2006, Bellissimo, his then-wife Katherine and other investors known as Wellington Equestrian Partners, bought the equestrian showgrounds and 200 acres around it for about $135 million. His team began to run the Winter Equestrian Festival.

Wellington Equestrian Partners has said it controls more than 550 acres in the village, even after selling more than 300 acres over the last year to Denmark-based Global Equestrian Group and the United States Polo Association.

Equestrian Preserve Committee Member Haakon Gangnes asked what would happen to one proposed residential area called “the Island” if density requirements were not relaxed from the current minimum lot size of two acres.

“The project wouldn’t work,” Bellissimo said. “At that point in time, you couldn’t create the community we’re trying to create. We’d have to sort of re-do the entire plan.”

Gangnes asked if financial viability would be far off or kind of close.

“We’re talking 70 units versus 100 and something,” Bellissimo said. “If there was no amenity package, and we weren’t trying to create a world-class lifestyle destination, you’d go back to other options — just sell it off as farmland, not focus on the big vision, just focus on status quo.”

Trying to keep things the way they are risks losing ground to other rising equestrian centers, he argued. Investments close to $1 billion including a 248-room resort around Ocala represent what Wellington is up against.

“We’re going to lose two, three, four, five, six, seven percent to Ocala,” he said, referring to residents who participate in equestrian events. “That’s just the way it works. We need to bring in as many new families as we can.”

At the Wellington International showgrounds, Global Equestrian Group plans to build “permanent barns, permanent vendor areas and a state-of-the-art stadium,” company officials said in a statement shared at Bellissimo’s presentation.

“I think it’s important we all work together, and that we are, and will stay, as No. 1 in the world,” said Andreas Helgstrand, CEO of Global Equestrian Group, in a taped message.

A proposed commercial center can help create the “downtown” that the village has never really had, Bellissimo said. The point is to create a public center accessible to all Wellington residents, he explained, not just the insular domain of a few.

“We could sell off that marketplace and not connect it, and we won’t have a downtown ever in Wellington, because these are the last pieces of land in Wellington,” Bellissimo said.

His goal is to ensure that Wellington reigns as the equestrian capital of the world for the next 50 years.

“I would hate to just sell off the pieces after reassembling them with great pain over the years and waiting for this moment,” Bellissimo said.

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