Bill Koch's Wild West Adventure
The controversial businessman is building an Old West town near Paonia that’s a full-scale reproduction of a 19th-century settlement. But is the town simply the project of an eccentric billionaire, or is there more to the story? 5280 got an exclusive look at the controversial project—and spoke with the man behind the classic Western dustup.
In all of my interactions with Koch over the course of five months, it was not business, or the Old West town, that he spoke about most often. I visited with Koch, who rarely grants interviews, on multiple occasions, across several states, at four of his homes, and I was the first (and only, to this date) journalist to visit his Old West town. I met his family, in-laws, and friends; Oxbow executives, his personal staff, and contract workers; and teachers and students at the school he founded, Oxbridge Academy of the Palm Beaches, in Florida. Whether he was discussing his own childhood or calling me en route to a son’s basketball game, family was the prevailing theme of our conversations.
His is an eclectic tribe. Koch has five biological children and one stepson, who range in age from six to 26, by four women (three wives and a girlfriend). The youngest child was born to Koch and his current wife, Bridget Rooney Koch, granddaughter of Art Rooney, who founded the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1933. Koch has also all but legally adopted Rooney Koch’s son, whom she had with actor Kevin Costner.
At dinner one night at Koch’s Cape Cod compound, the dinner table teemed with family and friends. Four of the children were present. Rooney Koch headed the table. Fifty years old, whip thin, with dark brown hair and light green eyes, she’s not your standard trophy wife: She’s a vegan and an avid skier and recreational kickboxer. She’s also smart and very funny. Koch attributes his two failed marriages—one wife accused Koch of assaulting her; he claims her accusation was an attempt to get out of their prenuptial agreement, and they settled out of court—in part to scars from his childhood. “I always wanted my mother’s affection but could never get it,” he says. “I married two women who reminded me a lot of my mother. They were unable to love anyone other than themselves.” With Rooney, he’s certain he’s found the right one. “She’s got a great character and she could love me besides loving herself.”
In 2011, Koch founded Oxbridge Academy, pledging $60 million because, he says, he wasn’t satisfied with the education options in Palm Beach, and he didn’t want to send his children off to boarding school. He runs the school like a business: The headmaster is the “president and CEO,” and the kids and the parents are the customers. “Kids come first,” he says. “Staff comes last.” The school’s five-person board of directors contains three Oxbow executives, including Koch. He’s been on the board of four different schools and says, “You can spend more time debating the problem than solving it.” Being on the board of the school is, Koch says, “the equivalent of holding the stock in Oxbridge.”
In addition to the school and Bear Ranch, Koch has a 42-acre Cape Cod estate, comprised of the former Dupont and Mellon family properties; a 90-acre estate in Aspen made up of four neighboring properties; and his primary residence, a 35,000-square-foot house in Palm Beach, Florida. The collection of properties may appear to be stereotypical billionaire preening, but Koch says he has different intentions. “What I really want to do is create family compounds, so my sons will see each other and they’ll have a reason, when they get older and they have their own families, for staying together.” He’s sensitive to any hint of sibling rivalry or infighting among his children and is quick to punish them if he senses any—taking away iPhones, Facebook privileges, or grounding the teenagers. “That’s one of my goals in life: to make sure my kids get along, respect each other, and love each other.”