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After year of tumult, new leaders say Devon Horse Show will go on

Two months before thousands should stream into its grandstands, the Devon Horse Show has been on the receiving end of an unlikely question for an event in its 119th year:

Horses and riders warm up for the 2014 Devon Horse Show. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Horses and riders warm up for the 2014 Devon Horse Show. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)Read more

Two months before thousands should stream into its grandstands, the Devon Horse Show has been on the receiving end of an unlikely question for an event in its 119th year:

Will the show go on?

Such inquiries stem from more than a year of turmoil at the storied Main Line institution, including the departures of staffers and board members, whiffs of scandal, and a regime change.

The nonprofit's new leaders - who came to power just before Christmas - say the upheaval is behind them.

"At this point, there is no time or effort looking backwards," chairman Wayne Grafton said. "All the effort and focus is looking forward."

Yet an undercurrent of conflict persists.

The ouster of his predecessors stirred rumors and worries about the fate of the site and its events and revealed a political split between the country fair and horse show factions that still simmers. The changes have also fueled fear in the equestrian world, where the horse show is beloved, said Nicole Molinaro, Devon's former marketing director.

Many on the horse show side - allies of the former president - want the site legally preserved and its legacy to remain intact. Many on the country fair side supported the December replacement of the president and chairman by new president Richard O'Donnell and Grafton.

"We don't want it to change the way it is. It's so wonderful," said Rich Scarlett, a longtime equestrian who lost his position as horse show cochairman in January. He has not been involved with Devon since, he said, but plans to attend this year's show.

Molinaro and Scarlett are among at least seven former staffers, board members, or volunteers who have resigned or been removed from positions at the horse show since the previous president and chairman were voted out in December.

The Devon Horse Show, a 11-day affair that begins in late May, is considered a top event in the equestrian world, drawing national and international competitors and thousands of spectators to its Lancaster Avenue fairgrounds. The show operates as two nonprofits: the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair (DHSCF) Inc. and the DHSCF Foundation. Each has its own board of directors.

According to its tax filings, the event brings in between $4 million and $5 million each year. Proceeds benefit Bryn Mawr Hospital, to which Devon plans to give $425,000 this year, the second installment in a five-year pledge.

In late 2013, then-president Wade McDevitt stepped down after being accused of a conflict of interest over plans to create a retail development with Urban Outfitters next door to the horse show - and lease some horse-show-owned land to the company. McDevitt has family ties to Urban Outfitters.

His replacement, Sarah Coxe Lange, a Malvern resident, was ousted in December. At the time, she called it a "hostile takeover" and said she believed she was voted out in part because of her attempts to protect the Devon grounds through a land easement or historical preservation.

Her removal revived conspiracy theories about the site's future, particularly about Devon's relationship with Urban Outfitters.

Now, Coxe Lange and others say the Devon board should conserve its property. "Just prove to the community that Devon is not at risk by easing the land in perpetuity," she said in an interview.

This month, the horse show received a state historical marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, something Coxe Lange had desired. It is a symbolic acknowledgment of the show's historic value to the state, but does nothing to protect the site.

"If someone can find a group to come in and take care of it and protect it and ensure it's going to be there forever . . . that's the biggest thing that could really help squash all of these rumors," said Molinaro, who resigned as marketing director in February.

Grafton and O'Donnell said they did not want to spend time addressing rumors and were instead focusing on the show, which opens May 21. They have chosen a slogan for the 2015 show - "Our tradition continues"- that seems designed to quell worries about the event's future.

"We've never heard anybody advocate the selling of the grounds, or doing anything that would impede the horse show," said Grafton, who lives in Unionville, Chester County. "So the discussion is not a discussion within the Devon Horse Show. It's a discussion that's being created outside the Devon Horse Show, for reasons that I don't know."

As for the calls to Devon's office, O'Donnell said he has been answering them.

"I want to cut that rumor," he said. "People say, 'Is the horse show happening?' Absolutely."