Right off U.S. 74, about 80 miles west of uptown Charlotte, nestled on 1,600 acres in the undulating green foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains sits a new equestrian resort that will host one of the biggest sporting events ever to come to North Carolina.
The $175 million facility – Tryon International Equestrian Center – was little more than a pile of dirt at the start of 2014. Boston developer Mark Bellissimo and his partners hit the fast-forward button on construction when Tryon was awarded the 2018 World Equestrian Games late last year.
An unconventional equestrian sports enthusiast who is relatively new to the industry, Bellissimo had planned from the start to build out the center with the amenities required to host the games, which tourism officials describe as the “Olympics for horses.”
He sees the games as a chance to introduce the world to Tryon International and Mill Spring. His audacious goal: Make western North Carolina synonymous with equestrian games, much like Kentucky is synonymous with horse racing.
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“That’s really the goal for the World Equestrian Games: To use that as a platform and as a coming-out party for equestrian sport in this country,” Bellissimo said.
The 14-day games, last hosted in the United States in 2010 in Lexington, Ky., feature a host of disciplines, including jumping, dressage, vaulting and endurance – many of the same ones that take place during the Summer Olympics. The 2018 games at Tryon run Sept. 10-23. As in the Olympics, countries compete against each other in various events, and a medal count is kept. Tickets go on sale this September.
To support the games, and other competitions it hosts, Bellissimo has built 1,200 rentable stable , an outside arena with over 10,000 seats and several VIP areas, a separate indoor arena and miles of trails for longer events like cross country. Underway, as well, are four hotels, an expansive “Tryon Village” that will include restaurants and shops and a polo field approximately the size of seven football fields.
On a recent warm June afternoon, Bellissimo several times compared Tryon International to a NASCAR track.
It’s tough to see the similarities at first glance: Two of Tryon’s main sponsors, for instance, are Rolex and Land Rover. The center’s plush accommodations are a far cry from a racetrack infield, and include new three- to five-bedroom cabins for riders staying for extended periods. They’re dotted throughout a serene forest area with a trout stream, hammocks and barbecue pits.
But like a NASCAR track, Bellissimo envisions Tryon International as a family-friendly facility, where visitors can stay a while to enjoy their sport.
In fact, Bellissimo is intent on making equestrian games more accessible to those besides the ultra-rich (competitors who have trained at Tryon include the daughters of Bill Gates and Bruce Springsteen). Up to now, the sport’s elitist image has put off many, he says.
Bellissimo, who started out as a banker in New York, describes his upbringing as “very middle class,” playing football, hockey and baseball like other kids.
“For me, this was a very different world. I tried to spin it in my own way,” Bellissimo says. “Whereas a lot of people were focused in on the exclusivity, I’ve been disruptive in trying to present the passion of a horse to a much wider audience.”
One way he’s done that is by making horse shows free at Tryon, something he also did several years ago at his other equestrian resort in Wellington, Fla., a ritzy area near West Palm Beach. Some in the established horse community have bristled at Bellissimo’s approach. In 2010, he staged a concert in Wellington by the hip-hop artist Akon, according to an April 2013 Boston Magazine story.
Another way Bellissimo works toward that goal is through gladiator polo, an edgy sport he invented and describes as “hockey on horseback.” He’s taking the sport to Rome, Paris and China, next year, and the finals will take place during the 2018 World Equestrian Games.
“The sport connects, I think, more broadly to a broader population of people. And the reaction of the people who were here was very positive,” Bellissimo said of a free gladiator polo match the previous Saturday that he says drew over 12,000 people from the community.
A fast bid process
How Tryon got the World Equestrian Games in the first place seems fortuitous in retrospect.
Bromont, Quebec was awarded the games in 2014 but backed out on July 22 last year because of “ongoing financial issues.”
In an email obtained by the Observer through a public records request, Bellissmo on July 15 had forwarded to some of his business contacts a link to a story about Canada’s difficulties in Chronicle of the Horse, a publication he owns. The story addressed Canada’s difficulties in securing public financing for the games.
“We are probably the only site outside of Aachen (Germany) to be able to hold the event. North Carolina would most likely support this ... Would be a home run if we could get the event,” Bellissimo wrote.
Bellissimo noted how Tryon already had all the amenities needed to host an equestrian games of that magnitude – facilities for cross country, show jumping, dressage, driving, as well as more than enough stables.
“Only issue is housing. With the factory we would crush it and generate huge revenues to offset costs,” Bellissimo wrote of US Precision, a 200,000 square-foot manufacturing plant he owns about seven miles away that Tryon is using to build its hotels and other buildings for the resort.
Right away, officials at Tryon set to work to win support from the governors of North and South Carolina – at the time, Pat McCrory and Nikki Haley, respectively – to land the games at Tryon. Helping to facilitate the process was McCrory’s former commerce secretary, Sharon Decker, who serves as Tryon International’s chief operating officer. The team submitted the bid on July 31.
“Fantastic team work,” McCrory wrote in a July 31 email. “Go for it!!! Gov. Pat.”
To be sure, Tryon has leveraged its government ties to usher in development.
According to the N.C. Commerce Department, last April McCrory announced the N.C. Rural Development Authority made a $500,000 grant to Rutherford County to support the reuse of a building by US Precision, Bellissimo’s manufacturing plant. There, Bellissimo employs roughly 50 people – apart from the roughly 1,000 he employs at the equestrian center, he says. In 2014 the same agency approved a $295,755 community grant to build a water line needed for the equestrian center.
Today, Bellissimo and his family split their time between a house in Florida and their home in Campobello, S.C., where they hosted a fundraiser for McCrory in 2015, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times.
When the games were awarded to Tryon and announced in a news conference in Charlotte on Nov. 3, McCrory said the event would be bigger than the 2017 NBA All-Star Game, which had been pulled from Charlotte over North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2. The equestrian games’ total economic impact, McCrory and other leaders at the announcement said, would be upwards of $400 million.
When the World Equestrian Games were held in Lexington, Ky., tourism officials say the total economic impact on the state was about $201.6 million, according to a 2011 report. When Normandy hosted in 2014, the total economic impact on France was over $419 million, according to estimates from the International Equestrian Federation.
John Vrooman, a sports economist at Vanderbilt University, is skeptical about economic impact estimates, which he says are usually inflated. Direct spending during the games will be contained within Tryon, he says.
“This impact is great for (Tryon International) as a private business as long as the impact statement is not used to justify public subsidy for what will be largely private gain,” Vrooman says.
Still, says Eleanor Talley, a tourism manager at Visit NC: “It’s a big deal and people are really excited about it. It’s the Olympics of the horse world, basically.”
Visit NC, the state’s tourism arm, was not able to verify the claim that the World Equestrian Games are the largest sporting event ever to come to North Carolina.
Amid debate in other sports about public funding for stadiums and other arenas, the Tryon center is completely privately funded, something that’s boded well for landing an event of the scale of the World Equestrian Games. After all, Canada lost the games over an inability to secure public funding. The games will require some personnel assistance from local government on security and traffic, as well as from the Department of Homeland Security, since the games will be designated a National Special Security Event.
Tryon officials estimate the games will draw 500,000 people over two weeks from over 70 countries, most of whom will be flying through Charlotte, Asheville and Spartanburg, S.C. Those cities will host many visitors for the games, too, organizers say.
Jake Johnson, vice chairman of the Polk County Board of Commissioners, says locals have been mostly enthusiastic about the Tryon facility’s growing in the county, which has a population of roughly 20,000.
“The overwhelming majority are very excited about the potential opportunities that it will bring to the area. However, many are concerned about the lasting effect it could have on the small town vibe that they have come to love,” Johnson says.
Specifically, he says, they’re a bit worried about big development and the issues that can come with rezoning. Tryon Village, for instance, is expanding into some areas that have historically been unzoned, Johnson says. They’ve also been worried about the height of the buildings – one reason why Tryon is building modular, European style hotels that are lower to the ground.
Roger Smith, one of the founding shareholders of Tryon, is a longtime local resident who was part of the reason Bellissimo decided on Mill Spring as a location for his new resort.
“We were trying to do something for the community, something that would enhance people’s life. We thought it was a natural fit,” Smith says.
How can I attend the World Equestrian Games?
Tickets to the 2018 games at Tryon International go on sale this September. Fans can register their email with the Tryon2018 website, or “Like” the Tryon2018 page on Facebook. A variety of packages will be available, and range from VIP tickets to cheaper, family-friendly options.