Afternoon storms are building over the mountains of Saluda, though Elizabeth Smith and Nugget are a calm contrast. Nugget awaits his workout, softly snuffling through his velvety muzzle. In competition, he’s known as a large pony hunter, hurdling jumps more than half his height, with 1,200 pounds of muscles that ripple under his golden coat.
Astride him, the helmeted high-school senior from Spartanburg, not far below the nearby South Carolina border, seems especially tiny. “We know each other really well,” she says, stroking his mane. She and 14-year-old Nugget have trophies to show precisely how well.
The love of horses is endemic at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, and these owners and their animals are the elite of the equestrian world. A parking lot for the $70,000 air-conditioned trailers that chauffeur them is a sea of silver, with 500 or more squeezed bumper-to-hitch on a weekday in June. There are 1,200 stalls and a dozen arenas in which they train and compete. Tammy Tappan, an equestrian-inspired artist, recently opened shop here.
“We sold five bronzes and three paintings in six weeks,” she says, at prices of up to $10,000 for the sculptures and $4,000 for paintings.
Dorothy Staley knows horses, too. On Pea Ridge overlooking the center, she’s fixing macaroni and cheese in her tidy kitchen. Staley, 74, grew up in an old house that once stood across the road. “My daddy had 96 acres, two milk cows and two horses. But lord, not the kind they’ve got up here now.”
Nowadays, she corrals her four grandkids and four “great-grands,” occasionally picking up fried chicken at Roger’s Diner, one of the restaurants in the equestrian village down the hill. They stroll around, admiring the horses while she reminisces about growing up in rural, job-deprived Polk County. “I might not live to see it, but I like knowing my grandkids and great-grandkids might have something to look forward to here.”
Next month, the 1,600-acre center, propelled by a $200 million investment with another $200 million being pumped in amid a swirl of construction dust and din of equipment, will host the World Equestrian Games. The quadrennial event, last held in the U.S. in 2010 in Lexington, Ky., is the equivalent of the Olympics for horses.
Floridian Mark Bellissimo, managing partner of the Tryon Equestrian Partners LLC, the half dozen investors behind the center, sounds like a caffeinated derby announcer.
“This will be the largest-attended sporting event in the United States in 2018 and third-largest in the world, behind World Cup soccer and the Olympics,” he says, not to mention the most-attended sporting event ever in North Carolina. Tickets sell for up to $1,380 for the full 13-day event, and even at that price, more than 100,000 sold in less than two weeks.
From Sept. 11-23, the games will swamp hotels, motels, rented homes, campgrounds and other venues in Asheville, Charlotte, Hendersonville, Forest City, Spartanburg and other surrounding areas. “We expect the total impact to be north of $400 million,” Bellissimo says. More than 400,000 visitors will come from 70 countries, and competitors from 38, including the U.S. NBC will broadcast 90 hours, much of it live — the 2014 games in Normandy, France, attracted 350,000 viewers.
The lasting economic impact on this region and the change it’s bringing, though, matter more to Staley and her Polk and Rutherford county neighbors than the September competition’s explosion of money and publicity will for North Carolina. For one thing, the center, which opened in 2014, is cultivating down-home egalitarianism in a sport associated with the ultra-rich.
Bellissimo and partners originally expected to build it in Wellington, Fla., a long-standing equestrian community near West Palm Beach where he spends much of his time — his daughters and wife are horse people. But in Wellington, many of the equestrian elite view him as a gauche businessman rather than anointed horse lover. Plans there became snagged in lawsuits and acrimony, and a billionaire with whom Bellissimo locked horns pumped $500,000 into town elections, installing a council that blocked his development.
“Mark’s vision is to open it up to the public,” says Beth Rasin, editor of Middleburg, Va.-based Chronicle of the Horse, an equestrian magazine that is the sport’s bible and is owned by Bellissimo’s partnership. “Some people there didn’t want to change the country-club feeling the equestrian community has.” Several Wellington officials, including the current mayor, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Indeed, Bellissimo wants the Tryon Center to be akin to a Disney theme park, but with four-legged stars rather than cartoon ducks and precocious rodents, he says. “Given the challenges we’ve had in Florida, it has been a real breath of fresh air here,” he says. “It inspires us to want to invest more in the area.”
Former N.C. Secretary of Commerce Sharon Decker grew up in the mill section of Gastonia, two counties down U.S. 74 toward Charlotte. Now chief operating officer of the equestrian center, she says the region “has always had its very wealthy and its very poor.” Decker is a resident of nearby Rutherfordton. “We had the textile economy, and there were always the people who worked in the mills and the people who owned the mills. From my perspective, we now have the ability to bring those two cultures together here. And the common bond is an animal, the horse.”
Both cultures are evident at the Tryon center. Some horses that train and compete here are valued at more than $5 million, Rasin says. Owning, training and maintaining competition horses burns money like a prize jumper burns through the high-priced alfalfa and timothy hay that these owners import, mainly from the Northeast.
Yet also, in modest sedans and pickup trucks, visitors from the western Carolinas and Tennessee flood into Tryon for the weekly Saturday Night Lights. It’s free, like most activities here, except for large events such as the World Games. Children with painted faces bob on the imported Venetian carousel that made Wellington’s elite cringe when Bellissimo set one up there. Adults flatfoot to live bluegrass music, and at twilight, all stream into the 5,000-seat central arena to watch jumpers such as Nugget while other horses tiptoe through the hoisted-pinky subtleties of dressage.
Many weekday visitors, too, seem to be the casually curious rather than equestrian devotees. Chris Barnard, retired general counsel for a Charlotte-based chemical company, leans over the railing of a rink, watching jumpers sail over 3-foot obstacles. He and 10 friends visiting nearby Travelers Rest, S.C., came for a day outing. Two young riders rein in and are peppered with questions. “We never expected anything like this,” marvels a member of his group.
At the peak of summer, more than 500 people work here, Decker says. In years to come, hundreds of permanent jobs will spin off throughout the region. Some of that economic expansion is already underway. In March 2015, soon after the equestrian center opened, Lincolnton-based Carolina Trust Bank Corp. opened a branch in the nearby resort town of Lake Lure.
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“[The town] didn’t have a bank,” Decker says. “They’d tried for years to get one, but nobody came.” Carolina Trust regional manager Andy Cobb says more year-round traffic, partly a result of the center, was a factor.
Spindale-based Isothermal Community College has launched associate-degree courses in horse care and grooming and could expand those offerings, says Mike Gavin, community-relations director. That could include pre-veterinary medical training. Its hospitality courses already have about 120 graduates — 80% went directly into jobs, and, in many cases, outgrowths of the equestrian center, adds Mark Franklin, who heads the college’s customized training. Other outcomes have been serendipitous.
Several years ago, about the time Bellissimo began lining up contractors to build more than 1,900 lodging rooms to support the center, he concluded there weren’t enough local workers to build them. Polk County, one of the state’s smallest with fewer than 21,000 people, previously had only 220 motel rooms, says Tourism Director Melinda Massey.
Meanwhile in 2016, All American Homes of North Carolina Inc., a 100-employee maker of modular housing in nearby Forest City, was shutting down. Tryon Equestrian Partners stepped in, aided by a $500,000 grant from the state, and pumped about $6.5 million into factory upgrades. It’s since rebranded as US Precision Construction LLC.
“Everything you see here was done with modular construction,” Decker says, motioning to shops, rental cabins and other buildings. “That’s how we’ve done it so fast. Who would have thought we would start a manufacturing facility?” In February, when nearby Rutherfordton-based Touchstone Fine Cabinetry Co. announced it was shutting down its 220,000-square-foot factory, Tryon Partners again intervened: It bought the business, retaining all 67 employees.
Scott Welborn, Polk’s agricultural agent, is coaxing the county’s 300 or so farmers to switch from less profitable crops to producing high-quality hay that competition horses need. Traditional Kentucky 31 tall fescue, similar to yard grass, is low-energy and sometimes carries a harmful fungus. “Folks with million-dollar horses don’t care for that,” he says.
Local and state officials expect other opportunities here, such as converting animal waste to power — Duke Energy is already capturing biogas from swine waste in eastern North Carolina — and locally grown horticultural products. At the center’s entrance, a village of homes, retail shops, condos and apartments for seniors is planned.
To be sure, Tryon International Equestrian Center is breaking new ground. At its core is a bankrupt golf course for which Bellissimo and partners paid $11 million. Build-out, to include a 200-room luxury hotel, is likely to take a decade.
For now, on a steamy summer day, marketing director Michelle Yelton bounces between lumbering earthmovers and backhoes at the wheel of her SUV. Rising near the center of the site recently was the three-story steel framework of a media center that will house 1,500 equestrian journalists from around the globe, along with officials of the games, VIPs and dignitaries.
“We’ve moved over 4 million cubic yards of dirt,” she says, before steering by a flat expanse of green that is now a polo field. Piles of footing, a special composite of sand and other ingredients that give the arenas their brushed, smooth surfaces, await groundskeepers with Zamboni-like smoothers. More than 10,000 tons of the sandy mixture has already been installed.
The logistics of an international event such as September’s games are daunting. Horses from throughout the world will be flown into Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, 35 miles away, and shuttled here in closed trailers before being housed in quarantine stables. “Their feet,” Decker laughs, “will never touch the ground in South Carolina.”
Like most economic and cultural upheavals, the speedy evolution of the Tryon Center is not without controversy. The infusion of outside wealth, influence and change is a bur under the saddle of some neighbors.
Critics of the center worry about the environmental impact extra traffic is having on the formerly quiet, rural area, particularly a new $19 million interchange of Interstate 26 and U.S. 64. It’s a convenience for horse owners, but otherwise not needed, they say.
Polk County officials are aware of the friction. “We’re trying to adapt to a new environment here, while protecting local people who’ve been here a long time,” says County Manager Marche Pittman. “Several failed developments in the past have made people gun-shy about new growth, and folks here are cautious to begin with. It’s a balancing act between citizens and new folks. That’s our biggest challenge.”
One notable failure is Bright’s Creek, a 4,600-acre Mill Spring golf club and resort that includes a small equestrian component. It is in foreclosure. Owners blame inability to secure sufficient credit and a proposed Duke Energy transmission line through the property.
Those concerns haven’t fazed Bellissimo, who is determined to bring the equestrian world down-to-earth. It’s an unexpected vision from a Bostonian who earned a Harvard MBA and became a multimillionaire after selling two technology companies and through other investments. When Brandwise, a sales-software company he bought after the dot-com crash, merged with another company in 2004, Bellissimo cashed out and has since devoted much of his time to the horse industry. The Tryon Center is not his only major equestrian development; others are in Palm Beach County, Fla., and near Denver, Colo.
Bellissimo’s key North Carolina connection is business partner Roger Smith, a retired J.P. Morgan investment banker who grew up in Polk County. The duo lamented the region’s languishing economy. Bellissimo says he told Smith, “I’d agree on one condition, that it be of such a scale that it would attract the world’s best equestrians. In the first 16 months, we’d invested $150 million and put together the first version of the center. Safe to say, it’s one of the world’s best.”
Some of the other investors have major business credentials. Diana Mercer is the wife of Robert Mercer, a $50 billion hedge-fund manager based in Long Island, N.J. She previously invested $10 million in Breitbart News, the controversial right-wing media enterprise that provided key backing for Donald Trump in 2016. The Mercers also founded Cambridge Analytica, the British political-consulting firm at the center of Facebook’s recent privacy scandal. Diana’s daughter, Jennifer, is also a Tryon partner. Another partner, Howard Dvorkin, is a Florida-based personal-finance guru whose books and columns advocate a cash-only society. The investors’ common link: passion for horses.
With 400,000 or more visitors for September’s world games, many from countries with warring political factions, the FBI, State Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other agencies are already mapping security plans and monitoring social media for potential terrorist threats. The center also has its own emergency management and security director. Pittman praises the center for efforts to shoulder its own load by hiring off-duty deputies for events and traffic control.
In a broader sense, too, Decker says the center is complying with Polk County’s community-development guidelines, called its 20/20 Vision Plan, by discouraging spillover into nearby rural enclaves. “The plan calls for commercial development, but containing it along U.S. 74,” she says. “We want to grow, but we don’t want the big boxes.”
As a native of the region, she’s not oblivious to the strains change brings. “Does everybody like what we’re doing? Absolutely not. Can we find common bonds? I think so,” Decker says.
“We’re introducing this region to the world.”
At Tryon International Equestrian Center, where everything is new, it’s easy to overlook that North Carolina’s equestrian heritage has deep roots.
“Until the Civil War, North Carolina was the leading thoroughbred state in the country,” says N.C. Secretary of Commerce Tony Copeland.
“Archie” was a black stallion from Mowfield Plantation, 325 miles away in Northampton County, who lived from 1818 until 1833. He was so fast that his own racing career was cut short after three years — his owners could no longer find challengers. Archie went to pasture for stud duty, leaving a genetic stable of thousands of modern descendants, including Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Native Dancer.
North Carolina’s historic aversion to legalized betting limited the growth of its horse industry. Still, according to a 2016 report by the N.C. Department of Agriculture, equine-related activities pump $1.9 billion into the economy and create 19,000 direct and indirect jobs. More than 300,000 horses, mules and donkeys graze state pastures. While the region most known for jodhpurs, hounds and horses is the Sandhills of Southern Pines and Pinehurst, the Tryon area and its neighboring upstate South Carolina also have a strong equestrian tradition.
Copeland and others say the Tar Heel equestrian industry will get additional wallop with the Tryon Center.
“When you’re looking at $400 million in the Polk County region, that’s an incredible infusion of capital,” Copeland says. “The trickle or multiplier effect is beyond measure.”