Horsing around, Mark Bellissimo aims to remake Tryon area
Art, Sports and Leisure
Managing Partner, Tryon Equestrian Partners, 55
By Edward Martin
Photo by Mike Belleme
At the top of Saluda Grade, America’s steepest mainline railroad climb, 10,000 folks come in July for Coon Dog Day, an annual festival celebrating the hunting hound, and long the area’s biggest social draw. That’s until Mark Bellissimo came along. He’s the central figure behind this summer’s World Equestrian Games at Tryon International Equestrian Center, in the foothills at the bottom of the grade in Mill Spring.
“We sold over 100,000 tickets in the first 10 days,” says Bellissimo. “We’re expecting over 400,000 and possibly as many as 500,000, the largest sporting event in the United States in 2018 and fourth-largest in the world.” State tourism officials estimate the September games will create more than $200 million in economic impact, with participants and spectators hailing from 70 countries.
Bellissimo is managing partner of the four-family Tryon Equestrian Partners, developers of the 1,500-acre center and owner of equestrian operations in Colorado and Florida. A Harvard MBA who has worked on Wall Street and in health care, he opened the center in 2014. The quadrennial horse Olympics will spark headlines, but local and state officials and others say Bellissimo’s influence in western North Carolina will grow after the crowds depart.
“Our sales-tax collections have increased. We’re seeing entrepreneurs coming in to ask about opening new businesses, and people coming in to develop real estate or see what’s available in town,” says Zach Ollis, town manager of nearby Tryon, population about 1,700. “We’ve got feet in the streets.”
The equestrian center is akin to a classy four-legged Wimbledon. There are stalls for hundreds of visiting horses, a 10,000-seat arena along with smaller side arenas, restaurants and high-end retail shops. Several boutique hotels are under construction.
Similar efforts to create what he envisions as a “Disney-like resort for people who love horses” rumpled neighbors and local officials at a Wellington, Fla., property owned by the group. In contrast, three governors — North Carolina’s current Roy Cooper, his predecessor Pat McCrory and former South Carolina leader Nikki Haley — have praised the Tryon project for its economic impact.
Polk County native Roger Smith, a retired investment banker, first enticed Bellissimo to the area to look at the bankrupt White Oak golf community, on the market for $11 million. “Roger was concerned about the devastating impact the loss of the textile industry has had on the Carolinas, so he wanted to breathe some life into the economy,” says Bellissimo, who spends most of his time in Florida.
The course became the nucleus of today’s center, which entails a $200 million investment so far, with another $200 million on the way within two years, he says. Separately, Bellissimo and partners have created U.S. Precision Construction LLC, where this month about 20 robots and 50 workers will begin making modular structures that will become hotels, retail buildings and offices. “What we’re doing here is creating a rural economic cluster based on the equestrian lifestyle.”
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