As Hurricane Florence moves closer to the Carolinas coast, several hundred thousand people are descending on a small North Carolina town for what could be the largest sporting event in state history, the World Equestrian Games.
The games, held at Tryon Equestrian Center, will go on as planned for now, organizers say. Mill Spring, about two hours west of Charlotte, is far enough inland that organizers say they hope to avoid the torrential rains and strong winds that have already forced evacuations along the coast of the Carolinas.
The World Equestrian Games, which run through Sept. 23, began with a sold-out opening ceremony on Tuesday night. Jake Johnson, chairman of the Polk County Board of Commissioners, said organizers are monitoring the storm to figure out what to do when it hits.
Some of the events scheduled to take place outside can be moved to one the indoor arenas at Tryon, for instance, Johnson said.
The games will draw more than 700 competitors from 72 countries, organizers estimate. Tryon International officials say the World Equestrian Games could draw up to 400,000 people, and provide an economic impact of more than $400 million for the region.
Many of the resources deployed to assist with the games — including medical personnel, state highway patrol and possibly the National Guard — may instead be deployed to the coast to assist with hurricane relief efforts.
“We’ll make a game time decision as to whether we have the personnel to handle it,” Johnson said. “This situation is ever changing.”
All of the athletes competing this week are already here, said Dan Farrell, chief revenue officer of Equestrian Sport Productions, which owns Tryon and manages the World Equestrian Games. Those competing next week are slated to arrive late this week and early next week.
All of the horses competing have also already arrived, alleviating a potential logistical headache for organizers, Farrell added.
The Greenville-Spartanburg area has about 6,000 hotel and motel room nights blocked off over the next few weeks, according to Chris Jennings, executive vice president of the Spartanburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Most of the people who’ve reserved hotels in the Spartanburg area are World Equestrian Games competitors, and the few rooms that remain are quickly filling up with hurricane evacuees.
The World Equestrian Games, held once every four years and last hosted in the United States in 2010 in Lexington, Ky., feature a host of disciplines, including jumping, dressage, vaulting and endurance.
Tryon was awarded the games in late 2016. Since then, Mark Bellissimo, CEO of the equestrian center, has invested nearly $200 million in building Tryon into a state-of-the-art facility capable of hosting what’s touted as the “Olympics for horses.” Tryon opened in 2014 and has a 10,000-seat outdoor arena, 1,200 horse stalls, a small hotel and a range of restaurants.
“People from all over the world are coming and having a great time. It’s great to see all this preparation and see everything come to a crescendo,” Farrell said. “The storm isn’t going to dampen anyone’s spirits.”
Staff writer Bruce Henderson contributed.