WELLINGTON, Fla. - A transformation is occurring in the village's rural equestrian area.
Long the quiet playground of the wealthy and elite, it's getting a major makeover from a group of equestrian developers who hope to create a major equestrian industry in Wellington whose impact may be felt countywide.
A proposed $80 million development, dubbed Equestrian Village, is the key to bringing in more visitors, businesses and jobs year-round rather than the three months out of the year when the village plays host to the Winter Equestrian Festival, said Mark Bellissimo, managing partner of the Wellington Equestrian Partners.
On the former site of the Palm Beach Polo stadium, which in its heyday attracted royalty and celebrities, the group plans to build a hotel, condominiums, shops, offices, a covered arena and show rings.
They hope to attract more sponsors, bring in more events and draw in more audiences.
"This has been a private club for too long," Bellissimo said. "We want to open this up to the public."
But some old-guard equestrians aren't letting it go up unchallenged. They contend that the major commercial development at the corner of Pierson Road and South Shore Boulevard would ruin the character of the equestrian community, ushering in the most dramatic changes ever to the area.
And a major war is brewing between two opposing groups of wealthy equestrians.
"There are other areas of Wellington where those things need to take place," said Mat Forrest, executive director of the Wellington Equestrian Alliance, which recently reformed after being dormant for several years to fight Bellissimo's development plans. "They don't need to take place in a rural equestrian area."
They argue the hotel-retail complex is nothing like what was envisioned for the area – open space, low-density development and two-lane roads.
While the alliance is scathing about the commercial aspects of the planned development, it welcomes the new equestrian facilities the partners are putting up on a former polo field. The covered arena and show rings will be the location of a new major dressage horse show.
So the detractors of the proposed hotel at the same time praise Bellissimo and his partners for their efforts since they bought up most of the equestrian facilities and land in Wellington five years ago.
The equestrian industry has seen significant growth as the partners invested millions in updating show grounds at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center and expanding the Winter Equestrian Festival, a series of horse show competitions, from seven weeks to 12 weeks.
A June report by the nonprofit Palm Beach County Sports Commission on the economic impact of the Winter Equestrian Festival, run by Bellissimo and his partners, found that more than $120 million was spent by visitors during 2011's Winter Equestrian Festival. Five years ago, that number was $57 million.
Some 47,139 overnight hotel stays were booked in 2011 in connection with the equestrian festival.
If Bellissimo is allowed to build his development, others may follow his lead and request similar large commercial enterprises on the large stretches of open land available in the equestrian preserve, said Michael Whitlow, a Wellington Equestrian Preserve board member.
"My primary concern is protection," he said.