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It’s a rural NC county of 20,000 people. What will it be like when 400,000 visit?

The World Equestrian Games will still be held in Mill Spring, about two hours west of Charlotte, despite Hurricane Florence. Organizers say they will monitor the situation and adjust accordingly if necessary.
The World Equestrian Games will still be held in Mill Spring, about two hours west of Charlotte, despite Hurricane Florence. Organizers say they will monitor the situation and adjust accordingly if necessary. Observer file photo

What happens when nearly a half-million people flood a rural North Carolina county of 20,000? We’ll see in two weeks.

The World Equestrian Games begin 13 days of competition on Sept. 11 at the Tryon International Equestrian Center, 80 miles west of Charlotte. The games are the biggest international event in the sport, held every four years, and will draw more than 700 competitors from 72 countries.

It’s a natural setting: The Tryon area has been horse country since the 1920s and still hosts the venerable Block House Steeplechase among other events. The nearly $200 million equestrian center, built by Boston developer Mark Bellissimo, opened in 2014 and has a 10,000-seat outdoor arena, 1,200 horse stalls, a small hotel and a range of restaurants.

But never has Polk County hosted such a horde of visitors — game officials expect 300,000 to 400,000 spectators — or had so little time to brace for them. If attendance projections are met, games officials say, it will be North Carolina’s biggest sporting event.

The county, which lies on the South Carolina line roughly between Asheville and Greenville, S.C., is a bucolic mix of rolling forests, horse farms, vineyards and small communities. Tryon, population 1,600, is tiny right down to the Tryon Daily Bulletin, which bills itself as the “world’s smallest daily newspaper.”

As game time nears, state transportation workers are feverishly working on road improvements to smooth the way for competitors and spectators. Construction is also still underway at the equestrian center.

“They’re working on the interstate, they’re working on the highways. There’s construction everywhere,” county resident Brooklyn Alexander told Spartanburg, S.C.,’s WSPA. “I don’t think there’s a day in the past two weeks that I haven’t been late for work.”

Despite all the bustle, officials have also had to publicly quash rumors that the games have been canceled or moved. Chief operating officer Sharon Decker reassured Polk County commissioners last week that the games are still on, the Daily Bulletin reported.

“All I can figure is that some people still don’t believe a small team in Polk County can pull it of,” said Decker, a former state secretary of commerce. “We’ve become known for doing a lot of things in a short time.”

The center closed to the public in August as construction continued, Decker said, possibly fueling the rumors. Work is still underway on a covered arena, additional horse stalls and a three-story pavilion to house media and hospitality centers.

Because of their scale, the World Equestrian Games are normally awarded to sites years in advance. Lexington, Ky., hosted the games in 2010, and the 2014 event went to the Normandy region of France. This year’s games were initially awarded to Bromont, Quebec, but problems arose with public financing and the site was moved in 2016 — two short years before the event.

With the backing of the governors of both Carolinas, Bellissimo lobbied and won the games for his new Tryon center. Officials predicted then that the games would draw 500,000 people and have an economic impact upwards of $400 million, twice the amount gained by the Lexington games.

Bellissimo had hoped a World Equestrian Games would be in the Tryon center’s future. He didn’t expect it to happen so soon.

While the still-developing center could accommodate the competition, the two years to plan the games didn’t square with the four- to five-year timetable preferred by the sanctioning body, the International Federation for Equestrian Sports or FEI. The Tryon center had to renegotiate when some milestones would be completed, such as the schedule of events, and scramble to line up accommodations for its visitors, Decker said.

“This is unique in so many ways, because this is essentially a rescued event,” said Melinda Massey, Polk County’s travel and tourism director.

The privately-managed games made for some ironic disconnects with the local community. While the games’ website directs ticket buyers to hotels in Asheville, Greenville, and even Charlotte, Polk County itself still has vacancies among its 13 inns, bed-and-breakfasts, motels and 128 rental vacation homes. The county’s tourism site,, has links.

“We are really missing on that whole (booking) system,” Massey said, adding that the local omissions were inadvertent. “It looks like Polk County is sold out. I’m surprised that we are here; we all assumed that we would be 100 percent (full) in bookings.”

Public money

Tryon will be the first private entity to host the World Equestrian Games, Decker said. Outside the venue, though, public money will help get visitors to the site and keep them and the community safe for the games’ two-week run.

State legislators appropriated $1 million to police the event, Polk County manager Marche Pittman said. Some of the money will be used to house and feed state police and emergency staff. About half the grant will go to the county to offset planning costs and beef up staffing at emergency response agencies such as volunteer fire departments.

“The main concern, obviously, is the traffic and the impact on citizens in the community,” Pittman said. “Our main objective is that those folks are impacted as little as possible.”

The state Department of Transportation paid most of the $5.6 million cost to build two bridges on U.S. 74 that will span a short connecting road the equestrian center has built under them.

State crews are still working on a $19.2 million project to build new ramps at the U.S. 74 intersection with Interstate 26, near the games. The project had been planned for a decade, DOT spokesman David Uchiyama said, but was accelerated once the games were announced. Crews will finish what would normally be two years of construction in a single year, and one of the new ramps isn’t expected to be finished until opening day.

Polk County will host a mini-visitor center in the spectator parking lot to help direct visitors to the county’s 50 restaurants and points of local charm. Visitors will often be referred to mobile-friendly websites that can guide them on the go.

“Mostly, I would say this is a spectacular thing to be happening to Polk County,” said Massey, the county tourism official.

“The whole reason the equestrian center is here is because Tryon and the surrounding countryside have nearly 100 years of equestrian history under their belt. If I had to think of anything to come into our county of this nature, I don’t think there could be anything better. It celebrates the rural nature of our county, taking the things that are beautiful and special and putting it in a spotlight.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender

Getting to the World Equestrian Games

DOT is planning on up to 50,000 visitors a day during the event, spokesman David Uchiyama said, and hopes to avoid the gridlocked traffic that followed the solar eclipse across western North Carolina last August. Anything that can impede traffic, such as roadside mowers and construction equipment, will be removed for the event.

“Our goal for this, the number one priority, is to keep traffic flowing on I-26 and U.S. 74,” he said. Visitors should expect slowed or stopped traffic after exiting those freeways toward the equestrian center.

Live traffic video at the state’s command center will help officials monitor traffic, Uchiyama said, and six roadside-assistance trucks will be on patrol. Digital message boards will guide visitors to the off-site parking area.

Spectator parking will be not be at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring. The parking lot is at 6881 South N.C. 9 in Columbus. Shuttle buses will take spectators from parking to the games. Here’s how to get there:

  • From Charlotte and Shelby: Take U.S. 74 West to Exit 167 and follow N.C. 9 South to the parking area.

  • From Asheville and Hendersonville: Take U.S. 74 East to Exit 167 and then N.C. 9 South.

  • From Greenville and Spartanburg, S.C.: Take I-26 West to Exit 5; turn east onto S.C. 11 / Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway; follow message boards or state trooper signals to Melvin Hill Rd.; then follow N.C. 9 North to the parking area.

“Follow the signs and the officers directing traffic,” Uchiyama said. “This is not a time to follow your phone.”