News that Stadium Jumping Inc. was looking for an alternative site to the Palm Beach Polo Equestrian Club in Wellington, Fla., for its Winter Equestrian Festival and National Horse Show has sparked a flurry of controversy and a legal battle with Wellington Equestrian Partners, which is purchasing the facility.
After lease negotiations with WEP stalemated and a proposed document was rejected, officials from Stadium Jumping announced in late November that they were searching for land on which to build a new facility and would be leaving the showgrounds following the 2008 season, when its lease ends. While no specific locations being considered for a site were revealed, the intent appeared to be that the show wouldn’t be going much farther than a short horse trailer ride from the multi-million dollar farms that surround the showgrounds.
Though the air was practically electric with tension as talks between the parties continued during the National Horse Show at the showgrounds, Nov. 29-Dec. 3, real estate developer Mark Bellissimo of WEP said as the competition ended, “I would like for this to be non-confrontational; we’re interested in trying to work this out.”
On Dec. 4, however, WEP filed a lawsuit seeking to stop Stadium Jumping from moving. WEP insists it has “a binding and enforceable agreement” with Stadium Jumping, signed by its president, Gene Mische, in August 2005 that guarantees the shows will remain in Wellington at the equestrian club facility for the next 30 years. The document also provided for WEP to have a Stadium Jumping board seat and stock ownership in the corporation.
“A year after this agreement had been in place and after close to $100 million of real estate had been purchased or optioned, SJI [Stadium Jumping Inc.] minority shareholders conveyed that the only relationship they desired was a lease agreement at substantially different terms than were outlined in our agreement,” Bellissimo said in a statement.
Louis Jacobs, a member of the Stadium Jumping and National Horse Show boards, said Stadium Jumping officials do not consider the document binding. At press time, though, he couldn’t comment specifically on the lawsuit because he hadn’t seen it.
Speaking in general terms, however, Jacobs noted that Bellissimo “has been alleging we have a binding contract to remain where we are, but it is our view no such obligation exists. I think he is looking to get some judgment on this.
“Besides the economic issues, which are a big difficulty as well, there are numerous issues we can’t get beyond,” continued Jacobs.
Stadium Jumping principals are concerned that WEP, which is set to close on their purchase of the showgrounds from current owner Glenn Straub early next year, already is selling off parts of the acreage for development, which would make the footprint of the site even more cramped. Bellissimo contends other land will be available to handle the showgrounds’ needs.
According to Mische, who also is president of the National, a new, larger site elsewhere would solve several problems. First and foremost is the lack of space at the current facility, which Jacobs said was built to accommodate 1,000 to 1,500 horses and now must handle approximately 3,800 during the WEF.
That in turn has led to trouble with the neighbors, something both men pointed out could be solved on a larger land parcel with room for a buffer zone between the show and residential areas. Additional acreage also would mean space for the shows to grow even further and include more than 1,000 additional horses, as well as ending some of management’s current headaches.
“What really discouraged me is how the people who have land around here have given us a hard time about things we want to do, like adding stabling,” said Mische, founder of Stadium Jumping, the WEF and the American Grand Prix Association, sadly noting that it hurts particularly because the area around the showgrounds is an equestrian community.
However, even if Stadium Jumping leaves the grounds, shows could continue to be held there. The Littlewood competitions, for instance, already are based in one area of the site.
Meanwhile, Mische said he is no longer involved with WEP plans, announced in January 2006, for a massive “world class” equestrian development adjacent to the showgrounds. Discussions of what the project could offer included housing, a hotel, restaurants, shops, a stadium to showcase major equestrian events and possibly an indoor ring.
Asked whether that project is dead, Bellissimo said “we’re holding off” because of a “primary desire to close on the showgrounds as soon as possible.”