Early Restaurants In Wellington

Early Restaurants In Wellington
Recollections From Longtime Wellington Restaurant Owners Gabriel Finocchietti And Dennis Witkowski

By Joshua Manning

This month, Wellington History features two longtime restaurateurs who have served up great comfort food to generations of Wellington residents — Gabriel Finocchietti of Gabriel’s Café & Grille and Dennis Witkowski of the former Cobblestones restaurant.

Today, Wellington is home to a wide array of restaurants, representing all types of cuisines. However, that was not always the case. In its early years, Wellington had precious little to offer those looking for a decent meal outside the home.

Gabriel Finocchietti owns the oldest continually operating restaurant in Wellington. His café in the Wellington Plaza was initially run by the mother-in-law of builder Alan Black, who developed what was then called Wellington Country Plaza, the young community’s first shopping center.

Known as Annamarie’s Café, she ran it for several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s before the Black family moved to Australia. The restaurant changed hands and was known for a time as Angelo’s Café. That was until 1990, when Finocchietti bought the place, and it became Gabriel’s Café & Grille.

“When I moved to Sugar Pond, my neighbor owned Mom’s Kitchen on Lake Worth Road. I worked at the Breakers. We knew each other for a while. He came to my house and said there was a restaurant for sale down the street,” Finocchietti recalled. “That’s what did it. The deal was good, and I bought it. That was 1990, and we are still here today.”

While the community has grown exponentially during that time, so has the competition.

“When I bought Gabriel’s, there were only three breakfast restaurants, and now there are at least eight,” he explained.

Nevertheless, the café has garnered many regular clients through the years, all of whom become part of Finocchietti’s extended family.

“People-wise, there is still a lot of connection because we have known them for 30-plus years,” he said. “We share the good and the bad. That is the main reason why I am still here to today — the people and the connections.”

And that includes the staff, such as server Laurie Purvis, who has been working there for 33 years. She was working at nearby Squire’s Deli, came for lunch one day and never left.

“Some of the old generation people are still here,” Finocchietti said. “Now there’s the second generation with the third generation coming in.”

The growth on State Road 7, particularly around the Mall at Wellington Green, has made business more competitive but also brought in more people.

“Now we are looking at Southern Blvd. also getting competitive with traffic and businesses. But the heart of Wellington, where Gabriel’s is located, has not changed that much,” Finocchietti said. “In season, we definitely see more traffic due to the horse industry from January until the end of April. At the same time, that gives 100 percent of the businesses in the community more business this time of the year. Every restaurant or shop or supermarket is increasing its volume.”

He is proud to have spent the last 30 years producing homemade, good quality food that people enjoy almost like it was cooked at home.

“Everything is made fresh, from soup to salads. On our menu, everything is cooked to order,” Finocchietti said. “The menu includes standard breakfast and lunch items, but also some Italian dishes and Hispanic influence to give people a little more variety.”

He particularly likes it when people compliment the food. Popular breakfast items are waffles, omelets and Mama’s Stuffed Egg Crepes. For lunch, people love the burgers, Cuban sub, turkey club, Reuben sandwich and the wide array of salads.

Like the owners of most small businesses, you’ll usually find Finocchietti at the restaurant when it is open.

“The key is dealing with every single consequence. If it was not for me dealing with it, I don’t think it would survive,” explained Finocchietti, who personally manages the restaurant with help from veteran staff members. “A manager, a cashier and a host would take most of the profit away. You have to be able to take care of problems. If the chef is sick, I can go back and cook if necessary. I know all the jobs in this place.”

Meanwhile, life goes on. His two children, Lisa and Gabriel, grew up in the restaurant. They still live locally, along with Finocchietti’s four grandchildren.

“People ask if I get a day off. No, I love to come here. The people who come here are my friends. We talk all about our town,” Finocchietti said. “My wife Darlene and I have redecorated the restaurant through the years. Currently, with a Carolina country décor. It makes the restaurant cozy and homey.”

Fellow restaurateur Dennis Witkowski was a fixture in Wellington during the community’s early years.

“I came to Wellington in 1979. I had just moved down from New York’s Long Island, where I had a saloon in Hampton Bays,” Witkowski recalled. “I got tired of the Long Island winters and moved to my dream destination of West Palm Beach.”

His first trip to Wellington had been the year before, in the winter of 1978. “A couple of buddies of mine invited me out to play a round of golf at the newly opened Palm Beach Polo golf course,” Witkowski said. “It was the middle of nowhere and seemed like an eternity driving out on Forest Hill Blvd.”

Yet, Wellington is where he ended up working, taking a job as a bartender at the soon-to-be-open Wellington Country Club, now known as the Wanderers Club.

“We opened that club at the end of 1979, I think on New Year’s Eve,” Witkowski said. “It was a remarkable bar. It was the centerpiece of the community of Wellington, which had about 3,000 people at the time.”

Witkowski, who is quite tall, remembers his time as a bartender there fondly.

“It was a sunken bar. It was three feet below the area. My head could barely clear the glass rack,” he said. “People got a look of amazement when they realized how tall I was. Everyone from the community of Wellington gathered there. I particularly remember the newly formed Exchange Club. Everyone who was anyone was a member.”

The club had its weekly meetings and always started with cocktails at the bar, he said. “I got to know all of the who’s who of Wellington very quickly,” Witkowski said, specifically noting early Wellington leaders Frank Gladney, Frank Glass and Bink Glisson. “I held that job a couple of years until I got the opportunity to open Cobblestones.”

Witkowski’s new restaurant was one of the first businesses at the new Town Square shopping plaza when Cobblestones opened on Dec. 3, 1982.

“Up to that point, all we had was one shopping plaza in Wellington,” he said. “At the end of 1982, we had the opening of the original Wellington Mall and Town Square, nearly simultaneously. I was caught with the decision of where to open my restaurant. I chose to go where Publix was opening, which turned out to be a terrific location. We had an instant hit on our hands.”

Witkowski operated the restaurant until 1994, when he sold it to the Murphy family and, for a while, switched careers to become a financial consultant.

“I’ve had half a dozen restaurants in my life, but that was the star of all of them,” he said of Cobblestones. “I remember it fondly, and so does the community. It was Wellington’s finest restaurant in terms of the community. Everyone in Wellington embraced it and used it.”

Before the place even opened, Witkowski recalls going out to the site and drawing out its layout in the dirt.

“I enjoyed the whole building process — creating something from the ground up,” he said. “It was such a wonderful gathering place for the community. It was a place where we had the owners of the polo teams, polo players and the grooms. It encompassed everyone in the community, and the equestrian aspect was definitely significant.”

Through Cobblestones, he became friendly with polo royalty, such as Memo Gracida and the entire Gracida family. The place also had its fair share of celebrity sightings.

“We certainly had a huge number of celebrities that came to Wellington back then, particularly due to polo,” Witkowski said. “One of my favorite customers was Zsa Zsa Gabor. She became a great customer and friend. She returned and brought Fifi, her chihuahua. We made an exception and let her bring the dog in. Later, she brought her good friend Merv Griffin, back then the No. 1 TV producer in the world. He became a friend, and we got to play tennis together. Perhaps even more famous was the day Paul Newman came in with his wife Joanne Woodward. He was probably the top movie actor at the time. I was totally awestruck to have him in the restaurant.”

During his time in Wellington, he saw the community grow quickly from 3,000 to 20,000 residents.

“It had such a wonderful, small-town feeling. Everyone just knew everybody. We were all coming off the ark onto this new land together,” Witkowski recalled. “Everybody was in the same boat coming into this brand-new community. It had little to offer, but it gave us a chance to create a sense of community.”

After Cobblestones closed, the site later became a Mexican restaurant called La Fogata. “I went to the Mexican place a few times, but there were too many ghosts for me,” Witkowski said.

After a major health scare, Witkowski returned to the restaurant business in the early 2000s with support from his longtime friend, developer Bruce Rendina.

“In 2001, I suffered a brain tumor, and as I was lying in JFK Hospital in recovery, Bruce came to my bedside and told me that we would open a new restaurant in Abacoa,” Witkowski said. “Soon thereafter, we did just that. In 2001, I opened Stadium Grill with Bruce as my partner, and I have remained in that restaurant until today.”

Nowadays, he operates Stadium Grill with his son, Ryan Witkowski, who grew up at Cobblestones in Wellington.

 

 

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Fallen Firefighter Memorial Project

Fallen Firefighter Memorial Project
Retired Firefighters Group Raising Money To Honor All Those Who Have Made The Ultimate Sacrifice

By Joshua Manning

The Retired Firefighters of Palm Beach County have a long history of projects that give back to the community, and that includes the nonprofit’s current effort toward creating a memorial to honor fallen firefighters.

The Fallen Firefighter Memorial Project will create a Fallen Firefighter Memorial Park at Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue headquarters on Pike Road. Included at the memorial park will be a statue honoring those who have given their lives in service to the community.

“We are always giving back to the community,” said Vicki Sheppard, president of the Retired Firefighters of Palm Beach County. “We looked at what would be our fundraiser this year, and we have decided to give back to our fallen firefighters, creating something local to honor them.”

This unique project serves two purposes: design and designate the Fallen Firefighter Memorial Park, which will contain a Fallen Firefighter statue, and to provide financial assistance for the families of fallen firefighters to attend national and state ceremonies honoring their heroes.

“The fallen firefighters’ statue in a memorial park seemed like a wonderful, lasting tribute to the fallen firefighter families,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard noted that many Palm Beach County firefighters have given the ultimate sacrifice while serving their community. To honor them, the Retired Firefighters of Palm Beach County partnered with the Professional Firefighters/Paramedics of Palm Beach County Local 2928 I.A.F.F. Inc. to create this memorial project, which will honor fallen firefighters from all departments in the county. The organizations have held fundraisers to bring this project to fruition but are also reaching out to the community for financial support.

Fallen firefighters are those who have died as a result of occupational injuries or diseases, including heart and lung issues, and specific types of cancers. The local Fallen Firefighter Memorial Park will provide a central venue for ceremonies where fallen firefighter families will be honored and recognized for their sacrifices.

Firefighting is recognized globally as one of the most dangerous professions. In the United States, about 45 percent of firefighters’ on-duty deaths are due to cardiovascular events.

In addition, firefighters have a nine percent higher risk of an occupational cancer diagnosis and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from an occupational cancer than the general population.

Meanwhile, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation estimates that there are between 100 and 200 firefighter deaths by suicide each year. While there has been a renewed emphasis on prevention, occupational deaths still occur at an alarming rate.

The Retired Firefighters of Palm Beach County acknowledge the dangers of firefighting and the unacceptably high rates that active and retired firefighters are passing away and believe that these sacrifices need to be memorialized locally.

“This project is important because the fallen firefighter families have given so much. Their spouses have given so much to serve the community. They lost their spouses at relatively young ages. The average age for our firefighter cancers deaths is 58 years old,” Sheppard said. “We try to make sure that they are remembered.”

Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue is the primary agency providing lifesaving services for residents here in the western communities. A number of local families have paid the ultimate sacrifice.

In 2008, PBCFR Capt. Butch Smith, who worked in The Acreage, was diagnosed with Stage 4 multiple myeloma and was initially given two years to live.

Smith took his cancer fight public, determined to raise awareness on firefighter cancers through fundraising events. For nearly nine years, he fought through stem cell therapy, hospital admissions and releases, rounds of chemotherapy and other procedures. Meanwhile, his annual fundraiser provided more than $250,000 to local charities. In 2017, Smith passed as valiantly as he lived.

In Royal Palm Beach, firefighters who merged into PBCFR from the village’s independent fire department in 1999 included Fire Marshal Tom Vreeland and Training Capt. Dave Haggerty. They passed away in 2011 and 2017, respectively, from occupational cancers.

In Wellington, fallen firefighters to heart disease and occupational cancers included Capt. Earl Wooten in 2019. Prior to his death, Wooten and his wife Mary donated the Fallen Firefighter Remembrance Table that the Retired Firefighters use at their gatherings to remember “those who have gone before us.” Mary Wooten is now supporting the Fallen Firefighter Memorial Project. “A lot of people don’t have contact with fire-rescue families and don’t know what has happened to these guys,” Wooten said.

She urged people from across the community to support this worthy project. “During their lives, the retired firefighters have given their all to help the community,” Wooten said. “They run in as people run out to help people and save lives. It is about time that everybody learns what these gentlemen did.”

Carrying on the family legacy, Wooten’s son, Earl II, is the fire chief at Okeechobee County Fire Rescue, while another son, John, works as a firefighter at Highlands County Fire Rescue.

Heart disease and cancers can affect all firefighters, regardless of department. In 2012, Eric Patrie from Delray Beach Fire Rescue passed away at age 37 from brain cancer. In 2023, Capt. Brian Wolnewitz passed away at the age of 44 from lung cancer, even though he never smoked.

Wolnewitz, a father of four, was a 20-year veteran of Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue and was told by his doctors that his cancer came from breathing in toxins while on the job as a firefighter. During his two-year battle with cancer, he raised awareness of firefighter cancers and fought to advance treatments so that others might benefit from his journey.

“These heroes selflessly gave everything they had to protect us and our neighbors,” his widow Julie Wolnewitz said. “By building a memorial here in Palm Beach County, we ensure that no one forgets the courage, bravery and dedication of our firefighters. It also gives the families and friends of the fallen a place to honor their loved ones. Many of these firefighters have young children, including mine. A local memorial is something that our children can be proud of, knowing that their dad or mom was a true hero that the community respects and will never forget.”

PBCFR’s Battalion 2 covers the western communities and is led by District Chief Amanda Vomero.

“The Fallen Firefighter Memorial Project is unlike any other memorial we have in our area,” Vomero said. “The lifelike statue holding a folded flag over the kneeling or fallen firefighter is a constant reminder of the sacrifices made by those who chose to serve their community. They chose to put the safety and needs of their neighbors over their own.”

She believes this is a great way to honor those who gave their lives.

“Every time the family, friends and co-workers of the fallen look at the memorial, they will feel pride and gratitude, knowing the community they served supported them and are thankful for the sacrifices made,” Vomero said.

In 2014, PBCFR took the lead on firefighter cancer prevention by organizing a new cancer prevention and research team called FACE (Firefighters Attacking the Cancer Epidemic). FACE formed a successful partnership with the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami.

Departments from all over South Florida came on board, and the first Florida firefighter cancer study was launched, known as the Firefighter Cancer Initiative (FCI). FCI was the catalyst to what is now the Firefighter Cancer Law, adopted in 2019 to provide assistance to firefighters with specific cancers. Firefighter cancer prevention now includes standard procedures such as post-fire decontamination, fireground air monitoring and annual medical screenings.

Firefighter occupational cancer deaths are now recognized on the state and I.A.F.F. fallen firefighter memorials, resulting in approximately eight firefighter names a year being added to the wall from Palm Beach County fire departments.

There is a national fallen firefighter memorial statue in Emmitsburg, Maryland, at the National Fire Academy, as well as a fallen firefighter memorial statue in Ocala at the Florida State Fire College and in Tallahassee at the Florida State Capitol. The I.A.F.F. Inc. has a fallen firefighter memorial statue in Colorado Springs. But there is currently no statue or memorial park in Palm Beach County to honor the sacrifices of fallen firefighters and their families.

The Retired Firefighters and Local 2928 plan to donate a fallen firefighter memorial statue to Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue, the county’s largest fire department. To accomplish this, they worked with Art in Public Places to design the Fallen Firefighter Memorial Park with a bronze statue at the entrance to PBCFR headquarters at 405 Pike Road, located at the roundabout in front of the Chief Herman Brice Headquarters and Regional Training Center.

“We thought that was a great spot with so many people coming to it. They can see the dangers of firefighting and pay tribute to those who have already fallen,” Sheppard said.

The Fallen Firefighter Memorial Park will provide a centerpiece and visual reminder to the fallen firefighter families, current fire service members and the community to recognize the dangers of firefighting, strive for health and wellness prevention, and reinforce the solemn oath to never forget those who have been lost.

Sheppard noted that Florida Power & Light, the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and Baptist Health South Florida are key supporters of the project, and she invited others from the community to get involved as well.

“The firefighters are there to protect everyone in their time of need, and I think it is nice when the community can support firefighters in their time of need,” she said. “This is a great opportunity to support your firefighters and the community.”

The project is expected to be complete in the last quarter of 2024 or the first quarter of 2025. Donations to support the project are being accepted through the Retired Firefighters of Palm Beach County, a nonprofit organization.

To learn more about the Fallen Firefighter Memorial Park and how you can become involved, visit www.ffmemorial.com.

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HSS Donation To Support Florida Trauma Care

HSS Donation To Support Florida Trauma Care
Contribution By Marina Kellen French And Wellington’s Annabelle Garrett Will Boost Growth In The Palm Beach Region

The Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) recently announced a $2 million contribution from HSS Trustee Marina Kellen French, and her daughter Annabelle Garrett of Wellington, to endow the trauma directorship at HSS Florida in West Palm Beach, as part of its growth plans.

The announcement of the donation was made earlier this year during a cocktail reception hosted by Palm Beach residents Nick and Barrie Somers with HSS physicians and notable members of the community in attendance.

As a leader of excellence in orthopedics, HSS is dedicated to bringing its world-class musculoskeletal care closer to home for Florida residents. Since the opening of HSS Florida four years ago, the facility has become a top choice for care in sports medicine, joint replacement, hand and upper extremities, physiatry, radiology, trauma and rehabilitation. Clinical leaders at the forefront of orthopedic research and care ensure a high level of expertise from diagnosis through treatment and recovery.

Most recently, spine surgeon Dr. Zachary J. Grabel and hand and upper extremity surgeon Dr. Matthew A. Butler were welcomed to the team. Continued collaboration among colleagues across the organization to pioneer cutting-edge treatments with the use of robotics, machine learning, regenerative medicine and wearable technology allows for continued optimization of patient outcomes.

“Our growth strategy underscores our commitment to providing accessible, high-quality healthcare to Floridians in new ways and in new places,” said Tara McCoy, CEO of HSS Florida. “We will utilize our knowledge and expertise to establish clinical collaborations and partner with other organizations, like the new HSS partnership at Naples Community Hospital, to extend our reach and impact across the state and southern region.”

HSS is the world’s leading academic medical center focused on musculoskeletal health. At its core is the Hospital for Special Surgery, nationally ranked No. 1 in orthopedics, No. 2 in rheumatology, and the best pediatric orthopedic hospital in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Founded in 1863, the hospital has the lowest readmission rates in the nation for orthopedics and among the lowest infection and complication rates. An affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical College, HSS has a main campus in New York City and facilities in New Jersey, Connecticut and in the Long Island and Westchester County regions of New York State, as well as in Florida.

In addition to patient care, HSS is a leader in research, innovation and education. The HSS Research Institute comprises 20 laboratories and 300 staff members focused on leading the advancement of musculoskeletal health through the prevention of degeneration, tissue repair and tissue regeneration.

In addition, more than 200 HSS clinical investigators are working to improve patient outcomes through better ways to prevent, diagnose and treat orthopedic, rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases.

The HSS Innovation Institute works to realize the potential of new drugs, therapeutics and devices, while the HSS Education Institute is a trusted leader in advancing musculoskeletal knowledge and research for physicians, nurses, allied health professionals, academic trainees and consumers in over 165 countries.

Learn more about HSS at www.hss.edu. For more information about HSS Florida, visit www.hss.edu/florida.

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A Unique Take On Indian Street Food

A Unique Take On Indian Street Food

Masala Mantra Indian Cuisine, which opened recently in Royal Palm Beach, is the latest venture by the owners of the popular Aroma Indian Cuisine in West Palm Beach. Masala Mantra brings a modern twist to the street foods of India.

Expanding the local culinary scene, a unique take on Indian street food has arrived in the western communities with the recent opening of Masala Mantra Indian Cuisine, a family-owned restaurant located in the Southern Palm Crossing shopping plaza.

The menu showcases the essence of Indian culinary artistry, fusing traditional flavors with innovative twists that redefine the street foods of India, creating a modern and dynamic dining experience.

Masala Mantra distinguishes itself through contemporary twists on traditional Indian flavors and dishes, and the creative story behind its design is conceptualized by Hridaan Patel, the young son of owners Purnima and Krunalbhai Patel.

Using the video game Minecraft, Hridaan helped create the restaurant’s unique ambiance, capturing the vibrancy of India’s streets with a playful, modern twist, and offering a dining experience that is as visually engaging as it is delicious.

Krunalbhai describes Masala Mantra as more than a restaurant.

“This is an immersive journey into the essence of Indian street food, re-envisioned through a contemporary lens,” he explained. “Each dish is crafted to narrate a story, blending tradition with innovation in a manner designed to surprise and delight our patrons and their palates.”

Masala Mantra’s unique ambiance sets the stage for a one-of-a-kind gastronomic adventure. Hridaan’s vision demonstrates how traditional elements can be creatively reinterpreted to blend with Krunalbhai and Purnima’s fresh and innovative perspective on Indian cuisine.

Dishes include entrée favorites such as jini dosa, biryani, chicken lollipops and stuffed mushrooms, and desserts like chocolate samosa.

“Every dish is rich in tradition yet infused with a contemporary twist that I believe will delight and surprise our guests,” Krunalbhai said. “It’s not just about dining; it’s about embarking on a flavorful journey that pays homage to India’s diverse and rich culinary heritage.”

Masala Mantra is the latest venture by the owners of Aroma Indian Cuisine in West Palm Beach. While Aroma focuses on traditional Indian dishes, Masala Mantra brings a modern twist to the street foods of India.

“We grew up savoring these delightful dishes in India, and we’re delighted to share our favorite timeless classics with everyone,” Krunalbhai said. “From popular Indian street food snacks like Basket Chaat and Lamb Khaldale, to the beloved classic dish Butter Chicken, our menu offers a variety of flavors to enjoy. To complete your dining experience, indulge in desserts like Walnut Halwa, and my personal favorite, Sizzling Brownie.”

The Patel family is excited to be bringing their vision of Indian cuisine to the diverse and growing western communities.

“My wife, Purnima, and I chose to open an Indian restaurant in the Royal Palm Beach area due to its pleasant neighborhood and strategic location, embodying the community atmosphere we wished to highlight,” Krunalbhai said.

A well-attending grand opening event was held in January, he added.

“We have been overwhelmed by the warm reception and enthusiasm from the community,” Krunalbhai said. “It has been a joy to see so many faces, new and familiar, embarking on this gastronomic journey with us. Our goal has always been to celebrate the spirit of Indian street food through a modern lens.”

A great time to explore this new dining option is on Mother’s Day, when Masala Mantra will be offering an exploration of Indian-inspired libations and culinary creations. Throughout the special day, all mothers can enjoy a complimentary cocktail with the purchase of any menu item to complement their experience.

From 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., guests can enjoy a Mother’s Day brunch including bottomless cocktails (complimentary for mothers) from brunch or lunch offerings, such as Egg Burji, Grilled Paneer Sandwich and Chocolate Dosa with Banana. You can also visit from 5 to 10 p.m. to indulge in timeliness Indian classics like Butter Chicken, Tikka Masala, a variety of naan flavors and more.

When visiting Masala Mantra, you will be able to immerse yourself in the rich flavors of the cuisine while savoring expertly crafted cocktails. Discover the perfect pairing of food and drink from a variety of signature cocktails ($13) including: Masala Guava, a chili-infused Tito’s vodka with triple sec, guava and lime; Mango Margarita, a chili-influenced tequila with mango puree and lime; and Kalakhatta Mojito, an Indian version of a classic cocktail with gin, blackberry, black salt and mint.

Restaurant hours are Sunday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 5 to 10 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 5 to 10:30 p.m. Masala Mantra is also available for private events.

Masala Mantra Indian Cuisine is located at 11051 Southern Blvd., Unit 210, in the Southern Palm Crossing shopping plaza. For more information, call (561) 328-7497 or visit www.masalamantraroyalpalmbeach.com.

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Historic Council Bids Farewell

Historic Council Bids Farewell
Transformative Wellington Village Council Remained Unchanged For Eight Years

By Mike May

This month marks the end of an era in Wellington government. For the first time in village history, the Wellington Village Council remained unchanged for eight solid years. They were blockbuster years with major changes, led by a panel of leaders who were unusually cohesive — and almost always got along well, even amid a few significant disagreements.

Meanwhile, the Village of Wellington has garnered some special recognition in recent years, such as an All-American City finalist, Money Magazine’s Best 100 Places to Live in the USA, listed as one of the Top 10 Safest Cities in Florida in 2022, and the Eighth Best Place to Live for Families, according to Fortune.

Many of those accolades came due to policies put in place by the five individuals who made up the Wellington Village Council over the past eight years — Mayor Anne Gerwig, Michael Drahos, John McGovern, Michael Napoleone and Tanya Siskind.

The outgoing council is a quintet of dedicated, diverse, driven and dynamic individuals who are diehard advocates of Wellington with a goal to serve the best interests of the residents and the village, even if there is always some disagreement on how best to accomplish that monumental task.

They have worked closely together, effectively and efficiently, to guide and oversee Wellington’s growth and expansion, and sometimes redevelopment. Not only have they served and worked well together, they have also been able to cooperate, communicate and compromise in an effort to serve the best interests of the village.

“It has been a hardworking group of people,” said McGovern, and those sentiments were shared by his fellow council members.

Nothing — whether hurricanes or a pandemic — has impeded the ability of this five-person delegation to meet on a regular basis to successfully conduct the business of the Village of Wellington. For the last eight years, whenever the clock struck 7 p.m. on a meeting night, Gerwig, Siskind, Drahos, Napoleone and McGovern were almost always sitting in their seats on the dais.

“We worked hard to work together,” Napoleone said.

“We never rubber-stamped any issues,” Drahos added.

“We have made many decisions with the best interests of the Village of Wellington in mind,” McGovern explained. “I call it community unanimity.”

This council came together after a tumultuous time in Wellington history, following a council that was sharply divided on many significant issues, but more importantly, did not get along.

“We restored a sense of order to the council,” said Gerwig, who has lived in Wellington for more than 30 years, where she and her husband run a business and raised their three children. “Before us, the council had become dysfunctional.”

This council, which includes the first two council members (McGovern and Drahos) who actually grew up in Wellington, was determined to strike a different tone.

“We’ve listened to the residents of the community and made decisions which were in the best interests of Wellington,” said Siskind, who considers herself a public servant, not a politician.

“We brought an unprecedented era of calm, collaboration, cohesion and continued success to the council,” McGovern added.

According to Drahos, “We brought credibility and stability to the council. We showed how to properly behave as elected officials.”

Napoleone referred to it as “bringing civility back to council meetings.”

If you look at this council’s list of achievements, it’s impressive and worth reviewing. It includes, but is not limited to, the construction of the new Wellington Town Center, which included the expansion of the Wellington Amphitheater and Scott’s Place playground, as well as the creation of the new Lakefront Promenade. Behind the scenes, they oversaw a $50 million modernization of Wellington’s water and wastewater utilities. They expanded the Wellington Tennis Center and have approved the construction of a new Wellington Aquatics Complex be built at Village Park, replacing an aging and outdated facility.

The council also approved and funded the acquisition of 45 acres of land for the expansion of the Wellington Environmental Preserve at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Everglades Habitat located off Flying Cow Road. This adds significantly to what was already a huge passive park and natural area. They also approved, funded and constructed the new Greenview Shores Park at Wellington High School’s campus, which features the largest non-collegiate artificial turf field east of the Mississippi River and is being used by dozens of local sports teams.

After decades of discussion, the council passed Wellington’s first golf cart ordinance.

“It was a safety issue,” Drahos said. “It was not an easy issue. It was very complex and difficult. But it’s critical to our way of life in Wellington.”

Possibly the most high-profile decision by the council was its recent approval of the Wellington Lifestyle Partners project, which while controversial for allowing the removal of some land from Wellington’s signature Equestrian Preserve Area, it will bring two significant recreational improvements that will benefit all residents.

Wellington will gain control of 55 acres just north of Forest Hill Blvd., which will become a new passive park on former golf course land that has been repeatedly suggested for development.

More importantly, the approval paves the way for the construction of an expanded equestrian showgrounds to be completed by 2028, allowing Wellington to continue to shine as the Winter Equestrian Capital of the World.

“That was a super hard, intense issue,” Gerwig recalled.

The council has also looked into the future of the village-owned K-Park property and settled longtime litigation issues affiliated with the land around the Mall at Wellington Green.

“Making those decisions was essential for the next decade of Wellington,” McGovern noted.

Supporting public education has been another priority of the council, which has increased the village’s Keely Spinelli grant award amounts given annually to each public school in Wellington, which has helped to keep Wellington’s schools A-rated.

The council also made decisions that have positively impacted the lifestyles of Wellington residents, such as the approval of new events like weekly outdoor concerts, the inclusion of food trucks, an expanded green market, and special events like the Wellington Classic Brew Fest and Bacon & Bourbon Fest.

There were significant policy initiatives, too. “We designed, passed and funded the first paid parental leave policy in Palm Beach County, supporting our employees that are new mothers and fathers,” McGovern noted.

All these improvements and upgrades to the quality of life in Wellington have been achieved without raising the millage rate.

“Our ability to maintain our way of life without raising the tax rate was not easy,” Drahos said.

Gerwig pointed out that while the council made decisions that provided direct and tangible benefits to Wellington residents, these “big picture” decisions also positively impacted residents of nearby communities.

“Our amenities are also enjoyed by those living in the surrounding communities, such as Royal Palm Beach, Greenacres and Boynton Beach,” Gerwig said. “We don’t live in a bubble.”

While this diverse council often had different points of view, they all voted based on what they felt were in the best interests of Wellington. After each vote, they would transition to the next topic. For Drahos, Napoleone and McGovern, that behavior is second nature, since they are all attorneys.

“We are all trained to be prepared, and we never carry with us the baggage of disagreement,” Drahos said.

“We are trained to take input, assess the issue, make a decision, cast a vote and then move on,” Napoleone agreed.

“We may have agreed or disagreed, but we were never disagreeable,” McGovern added. “We know how to properly behave as elected officials.”

Siskind also has a tendency to think like an attorney. “I am married to an attorney,” she noted.

While Gerwig may have been Wellington’s elected mayor, her goal was to be a team player.

“I was just one of five votes,” Gerwig said. “I was always a critical thinker. You should always care about every issue equally, whether it’s parks, schools, education or business.”

Despite the success of the eight years, changes are imminent. When the council next meets on Tuesday, April 9, Napoleone will take over the gavel from Gerwig after being elected mayor. Two new faces will join dais, but who they are will not be known until after an April 2 runoff election.

The swearing in ceremony on April 9 will be a Wellington watershed moment.

“Because of term limits and staggered terms, this will likely never happen again,” McGovern said of having an unchanged council for eight years.

Moving forward, Siskind and McGovern will be part of a new council team, as Napoleone learns the ins and outs of being mayor. While Drahos is stepping back from public life, Gerwig is currently running for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives.

Drahos said he will always cherish his time serving on the council.

“I will be looking back at these last eight years for the rest of my life,” he said.

Gerwig, who was Wellington’s sixth mayor and served a total of 14 years on the council, takes a pragmatic perspective.

“Everything will be perceived in hindsight,” she said. “My focus has always been on the residents of Wellington. Only time will tell.”

Napoleone knows that having the chance to work alongside Gerwig, Siskind, Drahos and McGovern was a special experience.

“It was such a privilege to spend the last eight years together,” the new mayor said. “We had a great run.”

Siskind said that serving on the council is an important assignment and not an easy task.

“We always set the bar high,” said Siskind, who works as a Realtor. “We all brought professionalism to the council. We agreed to disagree, and we always respected other people’s perspectives.”

As one of the two council holdovers, McGovern pledges to continue serving Wellington for today’s residents and future generations.

“We as a village cannot be stagnant, so we must modernize and advance while remaining true to our core principles of being the premier place to raise a family with great schools, great parks programs, dedicated programs for seniors and continuing to be the Winter Equestrian Capital of the World,” McGovern concluded.

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GPL Brings Global Grandeur To Wellington With The International Gay Polo Tournament

GPL Brings Global Grandeur To Wellington With The International Gay Polo Tournament

The 2024 Lexus International Gay Polo Tournament, presented by Douglas Elliman Real Estate, will bring together players and spectators from around the globe from April 4 to April 6, for a weekend that is equal parts competitive play and joie de vivre. For the first time, the Gay Polo League (GPL) will hold the tournament at the exclusive Patagones Polo Club in Wellington.

The annual tournament has become one of Wellington’s most anticipated events of the spring season, known for creating a culture of togetherness, equality and high fashion, to inspire and empower lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in sports and beyond.

“While this event is fun and competitive, it is the desire for equality that pushes us to do more each year,” GPL founder Chip McKenney said

The Flagship For International Play

While the GPL produces polo tournaments worldwide, Wellington has been the site of its flagship tournament since 2010. Players and allies from all over the globe descend upon the village each year for the highly engaging, multi-day event where everyone is welcome.

During the three-day event, celebrity players and novices mix with international polo aficionados and local entertainment-seekers. Creativity, energy and positivity are the vibe for players and spectators alike.

The tournament’s wildly popular Polotini Wigstock charity party on Friday, April 5, kicks off the weekend with a “hair-raising extravaganza” to benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Wigs are the accessory of choice at this annual event, where partiers try to top the previous year with their elaborate and colorful hairpieces and compete for prizes. Live entertainment will be the highlight of the evening.

The merriment continues the next day at the tournament’s tailgating party and competition in anticipation of the main event. Whimsical tablescapes and décor add to the fun-spirited competitiveness that lines the polo field. Coveted awards for best in show, best cuisine, best cocktail, best single tailgate and best multiple tailgates are all up for grabs.

“Anyone who comes to the tournament will see that we are a community that shares a love for adventure, fun and the beautiful, challenging sport of polo,” McKenney said.

 

 

Fast And Open Polo Play

As the only LGBTQ+ polo organization in the world, the GPL is changing the perception of gay athletes and providing a place where all can come together around a competitive, international sport, and promote inclusion and diversity at the same time. How the four teams come together is a prime example, McKenney explained.

“Most polo teams play consistently as teams,” he said. “Ours don’t. GPL teams combine players from other countries — gay and non-gay — who have not played together before. Players have one day of practice, and then we put together the teams based on skill and experience. Over the years, we have attracted more experienced players, and now our games are fast and open.”

The polo field will be new to the players and spectators as well this year. The Patagones Polo Club is the new home for the 2024 tournament, a location that fits the spirit of the GPL, according to McKenney.

“The Patagones Polo Club is the perfect, chic and intimate environment for our players and the camaraderie that happens along the sidelines,” he said. “We are grateful and excited for our new venue.”

Four teams will compete for two GPL perpetual trophies: the Senator’s Cup and the Founder’s Cup. Confirmed players to date include Gus Larrosa (Argentina), Tyler Thompson (England), Tony Natale (United States), Jesse Lee Eller (United States), Adrian Pia (Argentina), Eva Marquard (Germany) and Juan Diego Patron (Peru).

McKenney is quick to acknowledge the number of polo pros who donate their time and knowledge to the tournament both as players and consultants.

“We are fortunate to have so many generous professionals and advocates supporting the tournament,” McKenney said. “The international world of polo is embracing the GPL and setting an example for how we can all come together to promote acceptance, on the field and off.”

Learn more about the 2024 Lexus International Gay Polo Tournament at www.gaypolo.com.

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International Gay Polo Tournament Sponsors A Perfect Match For LGBTQ+ Luxury Consumers

International Gay Polo Tournament Sponsors A Perfect Match For LGBTQ+ Luxury Consumers

The 2024 Lexus International Gay Polo Tournament, presented by Douglas Elliman Real Estate, bears the names of two luxury brands known for their support of the LGBTQ+ community.

“Lexus and Douglas Elliman have offered extraordinary support since 2021,” said Chip McKenney, founder of the Gay Polo League. “They have made it possible to create the high-end event our audience expects. We are all about the luxury experience, and so are they.”

Lexus, while known for luxury and innovation, has also been recognized for its support of the LGBTQ+ community and for promoting diversity in its advertising campaigns. McKenney sees the far-reaching impact that the prestige brand has on inclusivity. “We are grateful for Lexus’ unwavering commitment to enact change,” he said.

Many other sponsors have come together at all levels to support the tournament. Cherry Knoll Farm, known for high-performance horses that compete internationally in dressage and show jumping, is the sponsor of the VIP tent and one of the teams. Goshen Hill is a team sponsor as well. 3 Graces Dressage is a silver sponsor. U.S. Polo Assn. and John Greene Real Estate are the tournament’s grand sponsors.

The crowd-pleasing divot stomp is sponsored by Equity Performance Equine. Both the United States Tennis Association, sponsoring the GPL Tailgate Competition, and Lauracea, a luxury brand of leather goods handcrafted in Italy with equestrians in mind, are new sponsors this year. RBC Wealth Management, the Palm Beach County Sports Commission, Discover the Palm Beaches and the Village of Wellington have all signed on as sponsors as well.

“Our sponsors are not only reaching an incredible audience for their brands, but they are also sharing their core values of inclusivity and equity,” McKenney said. “That’s the message that is remembered by our community.”

Learn more about sponsorships at www.gaypolo.com/our-sponsors.

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International Gay Polo Tournament To Support The Elton John AIDS Foundation

International Gay Polo Tournament To Support The Elton John AIDS Foundation

The players and spectators who come out for the 2024 Lexus International Gay Polo Tournament, presented by Douglas Elliman Real Estate, set for April 4-6, will join the Gay Polo League (GPL) in supporting the Elton John AIDS Foundation and its mission to be a powerful force in ending the AIDS epidemic.

Every year since 2016, GPL has chosen an LGBTQ+ charity to benefit from its Wellington tournament, raising awareness of the isolation and exclusion that has hurt gay people of every age. This year, GPL will harness the power of community and sport to raise crucial funds and awareness for the foundation’s lifesaving efforts.

Last year, the foundation launched the Rocket Fund to turbocharge its innovative work, targeting those most at risk of HIV/AIDS, including the LGBTQ+ community. Through their partnership, the GPL further solidifies its commitment to fostering an environment of inclusivity, while contributing toward a cause that makes a positive impact in the lives of millions of people.

GPL founder Chip McKenney is passionate about the partnership and the support the tournament will bring.

“The Elton John AIDS Foundation is one the foremost independent AIDS charities in the world,” he said. “We share their belief that AIDS can be beaten and that everyone must get compassionate support and care to stay healthy and safe, and live with dignity.”

A portion of the funds from tournament ticket sales and proceeds from the event’s signature GPL Polotini Wigstock party will benefit the foundation and contribute to its work to end stigma, prevent HIV infections, provide treatment and services, and motivate governments around the world to end AIDS.

The wildly popular GPL Polotini Wigstock party takes place on Friday, April 5, and features cocktails, light bites, a themed wig contest and fabulous entertainment that will captivate audiences while generating funds for the foundation.

McKenney noted the impact that the foundation has already had in the U.S. to build the health workforce, provide stigma-fee testing and compassionate care, and make it easier and more affordable for people to get HIV prevention and testing products.

“The Elton John AIDS Foundation is at the cutting edge of overcoming barriers to care and saving lives,” McKenney said. “We are proud to support their innovative and compassionate work that will impact people and communities across the world and right here in the United States.”

Anne Aslett, chief executive officer of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, is pleased to be chosen by the GPL.

“The Elton John AIDS Foundation proudly stands as the charitable beneficiary of the Gay Polo League in 2024,” she said. “Our commitment to the LGBTQ+ community extends beyond the polo fields, throughout the U.S. south and around the world. From working tirelessly to challenge discriminatory laws, to championing equitable standards of HIV care, we are guided by our fundamental belief that everyone deserves a life free from judgment, no matter who they are or whom they love.”

Learn more about GPL’s partner the Elton John AIDS Foundation at www.eltonjohnaidsfoundation.org.

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Patagones Polo Club To Host 2024 Lexus International Gay Polo Tournament

Patagones Polo Club To Host 2024 Lexus International Gay Polo Tournament

Known for its lush gardens and acres upon acres of polo grounds, it was a simple decision for the Lexus International Gay Polo Tournament, presented by Douglas Elliman Real Estate, to make when deciding to move the annual event to the gorgeous Patagones Polo Club in Wellington on Saturday, April 6.

The event is one that brings together thousands of revelers to celebrate inclusiveness and pride and serves as a safe space for LGBTQ+ athletes who love the sport. In that spirit, organizers felt that a more intimate space to bring attendees even closer together was the best way to celebrate the annual event.

“Patagones is an incredible venue for GPL. The club is private, beautifully manicured and beyond stunning. The polo field is world-class, too. We are beyond grateful to the owners for opening the doors to us,” said Chip McKenney, who founded both the Gay Polo League and its tournaments, which take place aside from Wellington around the world in spectacular locations such as Buenos Aires, Argentina; Saint-Tropez, France; and London, England. “This year, we are planning for a record number of attendees who will, without a doubt, bring their ‘A Game’ to the party. We are counting the days to see the tailgates field side, hearing the supporters cheering the teams, and the unbridled feeling of togetherness and acceptance that will resonate throughout the grounds.”

Founded in 2004 by Gonzalo Avendaño, the Patagones Polo Club has become the home to many significant, high-level matches during the winter and spring polo seasons.

With on-site stabling, the Patagones Polo Club is a must-visit for equestrian athletes from around the world, and one that aligns perfectly with the Gay Polo League’s needs.

Once again, this year’s tournament will feature 16 LGBTQ+ and ally athletes competing for the Senator’s Cup and Founder’s Cup. In between the friendly competition matches, there will be everyone’s favorite champagne toast and divot stomp. Tickets, tailgates and sponsorships for the 2024 Lexus International Gay Polo Tournament, presented by Douglas Elliman Real Estate, are still available.

The Patagones Polo Club is located at 4656 125th Avenue South in Wellington.

To get your tickets for the tournament on Saturday, April 6, visit www.gaypolo.com.

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Inaugural Event A Success

Inaugural Event A Success Hunt Ball Raises $285K For The Neil S. Hirsch Family Boys & Girls Club

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Palm Beach County hosted the inaugural Baran Hunt Ball in Wellington on Friday, Feb. 9. This debut event was a resounding success with more than 400 attendees helping raise more than $285,000 to support local children.

The proceeds from the event held at Wellington International’s equestrian ring will benefit the Neil S. Hirsch Family Boys & Girls Club and fund its career readiness and summer camps in Wellington.

“For a first-time event, the Hunt Ball was a smashing success that was so well supported by the equestrian community. It was a magnificent night watching these athletes, as both horse and riders performed under the lights for the title and $100,000 in prize money. It was an honor to be title sponsor and a special thank you goes out to our chairs Georgina Bloomberg and Jenny Oz LeRoy. We can’t wait to do this again next year,” Kristen Baran said.

The winning team was comprised of three riders: professional Brianne Goutal, amateur Grace Debney and junior rider Clara Propp.

Sponsorships included Title Sponsor Kristen Baran, Presenting Sponsor Sebilion, Platinum Benefactors Georgina Bloomberg and Pamela Walkenbach, Gold Benefactors Jenny Oz LeRoy and GLDN Events, and Silver Sponsors the Jacobs Family Foundation and Ovando Palm Beach.

The Baran Hunt Ball featured an exciting equestrian team format with innovative competitions for significant prize money. The teams consisted of a professional, an amateur and a junior rider. The prize money of $100,000 was split according to the finish of the top 12 teams.

“It is rare that an inaugural event goes so well and smoothly, but because of the hard work of Georgina, Jenny and Kristen, the Baran Hunt Ball was nothing but a triumph. Not only was it a fun and exciting night, but the funds raised will have life changing impact for so many of our families,” said Jaene Miranda, CEO and president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Palm Beach County.

Founded in 1971, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Palm Beach County is a not-for-profit youth development organization dedicated to promoting the educational, vocational, health, leadership and character of boys and girls in a safe, nurturing environment. The clubs, including the Neil S. Hirsch Family Boys & Girls Club in Wellington, provide more than a safe, fun and constructive alternative to being home alone — they offer a variety of award-winning developmental programs to help youth build skills, self-esteem and values during critical periods of growth.

The 20 Boys & Girls Clubs throughout Palm Beach County serve more than 13,000 children ages 6-18. For more information, visit www.bgcpbc.org or call (561) 683-3287.

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