It’s being touted as potentially North Carolina’s biggest-ever sports event: the 2018 World Equestrian Games will be held at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, about 80 miles west of Charlotte, Gov. Pat McCrory said Friday.
The news caps off a string of economic development announcements this week in Charlotte as one of the closest gubernatorial races in the nation nears the finish line. One of the most divisive issues of the campaign has been House Bill 2, a law limiting LGBT protections that has led to to the cancellation of business expansions and sporting events such as the 2017 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte.
“This is bigger, with all due respect, than the All-Star Game, a football game, a basketball game – combined, times two. This economic impact is huge,” McCrory said of the 13-day equestrian competition during a news conference at the Charlotte Chamber.
McCrory was referencing the NCAA and the ACC, which like the NBA, have pulled sporting events from North Carolina over HB2, which McCrory signed in March.
McCrory and Tryon International officials say the 2018 World Equestrian Games could provide an economic impact of more than $400 million – four times the projected impact of the All-Star weekend – and draw more than 500,000 spectators from 72 different countries to the region.
The games, held every four years, will require 60,000 room nights at hotels throughout the region, from Asheville to Charlotte to Spartanburg, S.C., McCrory said. So to help prepare for that ahead of the games, the hotel management company Salamander will be building a resort and spa at Tryon International.
Mark Bellissimo, CEO of the equestrian center, said the project requires only a small amount of public financing, including marketing and security. He anticipates his group’s budget will be between $50-$60 million.
News of the equestrian games comes on the heels of other major economic development updates:
▪ Earlier Friday, state officials announced the Hula Bowl, the college football all-star game that hasn’t been played since 2008, would come to Raleigh in 2018.
▪ Earlier this week, the online loan marketplace LendingTree announced plans to add 314 workers in Charlotte thanks to nearly $5 million in incentives, effectively doubling its size locally.
▪ And also on Friday, door maker Jeld-Wen said it is getting $2.4 million in incentives to add 200 jobs in Charlotte as it builds a new corporate campus in southwest Charlotte. Jeld-Wen is currently headquartered uptown.
Ties to N.C. government
Both Tryon and LendingTree have North Carolina government ties: Gov. Pat McCrory’s former commerce secretary, Sharon Decker, currently serves as Tryon International’s chief operating officer. And McCrory once served as a director of Tree.com, the former name of LendingTree’s parent company. The state ethics commission last year dismissed a complaint filed by a liberal advocacy group over his past ties to the company.
And Belissimo and his wife, Katherine, have close ties to McCrory. Last year, they held a fundraiser for McCrory at their home in Campobello, S.C., according to the Asheville Citizen-Times. And in late October, McCrory appointed Belissimo to the board of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.
According to the N.C. Commerce Department, the N.C. Rural Development Authority in 2014 approved a $295,755 community grant to build a water line needed for the equestrian center. And in April 2016, McCrory announced that the same agency made a $500,000 grant to Rutherford County to support the reuse of a building by US Precision Construction, a firm controlled by the entity that owns the equestrian center.
Following Friday’s announcement, when asked whether HB2 came up during the bid to bring the equestrian event to North Carolina, Decker said Tryon had been asked about it “occasionally,” but that ultimately it wasn’t a deterrent.
“We’re a private facility so the House bill requirements around restrooms does not apply for us. We are a non-discriminatory facility. We value and celebrate diversity in every form,” Decker said.
Jamal Little, a campaign spokesman for Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat running against McCrory, cited the “severe damage on our state’s economy” caused by HB2.
“While he continues to try to ignore the economic damage done by HB2, voters have not forgotten. We’ve lost the NCAA championship games, the ACC tournament, the NBA All-Star game, and countless concerts and conventions – while the governor calls HB2 irrelevant,” Little said.
Responding to comments from Cooper’s campaign, McCrory spokesman Ricky Diaz said: “Only Roy Cooper would consider positive economic news a bad thing for our state. Just goes to show you that Cooper has been rooting for North Carolina to fail all along in order to advance his own political career.”
The equestrian games will take place Sept. 10-23, 2018 in Mill Spring. The last time they were held in the U.S. was in 2010, when officials say they had an overall economic impact of $200 million in Lexington, Ky. The 2014 games were held in Normandy, France.
The event is “the major international championship event” that includes eight core equestrian disciplines: show jumping, dressage and para-equestrian dressage, eventing, driving, endurance, vaulting and reining, Tryon International said.
Staff writer Rick Rothacker contributed