By Edward Martin
In a horse sense, Tryon International Equestrian Center isn’t entirely new. Though Polk County has been overshadowed by the jodhpurs and bridles aura of the Sandhills, the area hosted Olympic jumping trials in the 1950s and ‘60s, and the Block House Races steeplechase celebrated its 70th anniversary in May.
However, Polk’s hospitality industry has undisputedly come up lame. “We had one motel in the whole county — a chain with about 50 rooms — and a few small mom-and-pops,” says Tourism Director Melinda Massey. That’s changing nearly overnight.
Since opening two years ago this month, the equestrian center is now a mixed-use development sprawling over more than 1,600 acres in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It will soon get an upgraded entrance off U.S. 74 at Pea Ridge Road. The development has added more than 200 overnight rooms, including a 50-room hotel, one-bedroom log cabins, three- and five-bedroom rental houses, and five restaurants — two more plus a general store will open this summer.
For the horses, “We’ve got 850 permanent stalls and a barn going in that’ll take us to 1,200,” says Sharon Decker, the center’s senior vice president for strategic initiatives. Decker, a former secretary of the N.C. Department of Commerce, views the Tryon center as a trendsetter. “In the 1970s and ‘80s in North Carolina, we developed communities around the sport of golf. We’re developing a community around equestrian sports.”
The center’s core is the former White Oak golf community, bought out of bankruptcy by investors headed by Florida equestrian-center developer Mark Bellissimo, who paid $11 million for the 1,400-acre project in 2012 and has since added 200 acres. Decker says the group has plowed in $100 million and will double that investment in the next several years. Tryon is benefiting from Bellissimo’s frustrations in Wellington, Fla., where he reinvigorated the Winter Equestrian Festival at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, which he also owns. Bellissimo hoped to expand equestrian offerings in Florida but encountered resistance from local officials, according to the Palm Beach Post.
Bellissimo turned his attention to Tryon, where major events, some nationally televised by NBC Sports, have spotlighted the center. A jumping competition June 11 will carry a purse of $380,000. Competitions are centered in a 6,000-seat arena, with about 10 smaller rings available.
While equestrian events attract horse fanciers, the center’s greater impact might be on the economic landscape of Polk, the state’s fifth-smallest county by size. Decker says the center is broadening its marketing as a destination for non-fans, promoting a planned spa and Arnold Palmer-designed golf course. Occupancy tax revenue has more than doubled in the two years since Tryon International opened, topping $160,000 this year. Robert Williamson, county economic developer, estimates that the financial impact on Polk and surrounding counties could top $50 million a year.
And there’s more to come. Construction of a 150-room luxury hotel has been pushed back a year after the developer, Middleburg, Va.-based Salamander Hotels & Resorts LLC, decided more mainstream lodging was first needed to accommodate crowds. “We remain in conversation with them, but I anticipate we’ll start construction in late 2017 and it’ll be 2018 before it reaches the market,” Decker says.
Condominiums will range from $450,000 to $1.3 million, and five-bedroom houses will rent for as much as $5,800 weekly.
The center will impact the Tar Heel equestrian industry, too. In 2009, a General Assembly study calculated the industry’s statewide economic impact at nearly $2 billion a year. The study concluded Polk’s 4,000 horses ranked it among the highest per capita ownership in the state.
In the Sandhills, Maureen Grippa, director of the Carolina Horse Park, a 250-acre equestrian venue started in Raeford in 1998, and Decker agree the two regions will complement each other rather than compete.
“It’s a new jewel in North Carolina for equestrian activities,” Grippa says. “It will raise the profile of the state as an equestrian center.” The Horse Park and other Sandhills venues may coordinate events to make them part of the same show circuit.