It was just a few days after Donald Trump’s inauguration. A couple of miles down the road, seemingly oblivious to the approaching storm, hundreds of revelers packed Mar-a-Lago, the Great Gatsby–esque private resort Trump has dubbed his “Winter White House,” to fete their new king. The private event, attended by Palm Beach’s billionaires, entrepreneurs and socialites, featured dinner and dancing, a replay of Trump’s swearing-in ceremony and a mammoth ice sculpture of the American flag with “President Trump” emblazoned on the base in red.
In such rarefied circles, it’s not unusual to bump into people who spent their childhoods riding around in limos with their nannies, and, in their retirement years, put off a spouse’s funeral so they could enjoy the last days of what Palm Beachers call “the Season”—roughly four months of epic winter bashes and galas that run from late November to early April every year. When the parties end, Palm Beach island’s population promptly shrinks from 30,000 to 10,000.
Trump’s party occurred at the height of this season, but one of the president’s neighbors, real estate magnate and billionaire Jeff Greene, did not attend. “He’s a very good host. I have to give him credit,” says Greene, who knows Trump casually and is a member of Mar-a-Lago. “But I don’t agree with his politics. I think some of the things he did to get himself elected paved the way for much more dangerous rhetoric in our country.”
Greene did not vote for Trump. Nor did the majority of Palm Beach County, but many of its residents are benefiting from his presence. Trump’s ascension has created one of the world’s greatest concentrations of global wealth and power right in their backyard. And that shift could mean a massive change in fortunes, not just for the superrich families who have made their homes in Palm Beach over the past century—the Fords, DuPonts, Rothschilds, Pulitzers and Lauders—but also for the area’s long-overlooked middle class.
Even before Trump became president, what was once a sleepy patch of Florida regional banks at the foot of Mar-a-Lago was coalescing into a financial center. Over the past few years, the area has attracted more than 60 hedge funds (some say well over a 100), dozens of private equity companies and hundreds of family offices—not to mention a rising number of larger banks like Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs. These are not just picayune satellite offices. Banks and billion-dollar hedge funds are swallowing up entire building complexes and blocks of commercial real estate, prompting residents to christen the area “the new Wall Street.”
Meanwhile, some of Trump’s trusted advisers and supporters have also flocked to the area. Anthony Scaramucci, founder of the $12 billion fund SkyBridge Capital, opened offices in Palm Beach Gardens two years ago. (This year, he agreed to sell the company after being named to the executive committee of Trump’s transition team in November.) Billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones, who says he’s counting on Trump’s support to save the Florida Everglades, bought the former estate of Ron Perelman in Palm Beach for $71 million in 2015. Carl Icahn, another hedge fund billionaire, whom Trump appointed to his transition team, is a part-time resident of Palm Beach who has an estate near Mar-a-Lago. And senior members of Team Trump have homes nearby as well, including Cabinet members Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce; Ben Carson, secretary of housing and urban development; Betsy DeVos, education secretary; and Gary Cohn, who left Goldman Sachs to head Trump’s National Economic Council.
Palm Beach County has long been a magnet for old-guard wealth—most of it is confined to the “island,” a slim, 30-mile spit that, since Victorian times, has attracted dozens of billionaires, who have built their mansions along its northern tip. Part of the attraction: Florida has not had a state income tax since 1855. But the hype surrounding Trump’s victory is prompting a new influx of financial companies. “A lot of people who previously thought, I think I’ll move to Florida, let’s go to Miami, are now taking a look at Palm Beach,” says Greene. “Because you turn on the TV and you don’t see Trump in the White House. You see him here.”
More to the point, you see him kibitzing with the world’s foreign leaders, dignitaries and billionaires. In fact, before Trump took office and before he began meeting with presidents and prime ministers at his Palm Beach resort—even before Americans started seeing members of Mar-a-Lago on Facebook posing casually with the nuclear football—Trump’s transition team was already calling the White House in Washington, D.C., “White House North.”
Planes, Cranes and Red Carpet Tours
Trump’s Palm Beach island has long been the aristocratic oasis to West Palm Beach’s grittier, skyscraper-and-cement landscape—the two narrowly separated by only a small drawbridge spanning the Atlantic’s Intracoastal Waterway. A 1936 issue of Fortune still hanging in one West Palm Beach restaurant describes the city’s inhabitants as existing “chiefly to serve Palm Beach [and] carry the bags and service the cars and wash the linen of the rich who live across the water.” But it is West Palm Beach, the county seat, that stands to benefit most from Trump’s draw.
Once a major stop on America’s “cocaine highway,” West Palm Beach has better growth prospects and just as frothy a jobs market as New York City. As a result, the region has seen a flood of people in recent months coming to look for jobs, housing and office space. According to a recent study commissioned by the city of West Palm Beach from business consultancy Alpern Rosenthal, an average of 2,000 new residents are relocating to Palm Beach County every month. As of March, the city had more than $2 billion of real estate construction in the pipeline, says Chris Roog, the city’s director of economic development.
The city’s skyline is filled with cranes. Offices, apartments and public transit hubs are sprouting up. West Palm Beach’s planners are overrun with blueprints for new developments, including several from Greene, who is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to build office and residential towers throughout the city, as well as micro-units downtown for millennials. (He’s hoping to charge around $1,000 a month for a 400-square-foot unit—less than what many pay now.) Greene has also opened a private school in West Palm Beach for the city’s gifted children, featuring robotics, “mindfulness rooms” and computer coding classes for kids 3 years and up.
Since Trump’s victory, the boom has only accelerated. Just as Trump was preparing to head to Mar-a-Lago to celebrate Christmas with his family, West Palm Beach unveiled its Flagler Financial District—a narrow slice of upscale office properties overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway and its flotillas of mega-yachts. Covering half a square mile at the base of the drawbridge leading to Bankers’ Row, the center is named for Henry Flagler, a founder of Standard Oil and the architect of the island’s gilded age.
BY LEAH MCGRATH GOODMAN AS PUBLISHED IN NEWSWEEK ON 3/21/17