This photo, taken July 31, shows the exit area of the Tryon International Equestrian Center, which is being expanded to 1,000 spaces, in anticipation of the World Equestrian Games. Most articles about the Games have featured a photo of a beautiful horse and a formally-dressed rider clearing a hurdle. Enquiring Minds thought its readers would rather see a photo that related directly to the content of the story. (Photo by Diana Starr)
By Roger McCredie with Diana Starr
Will Tryon be ready for the World Equestrian Games? Will Buncombe recoup any of the $652,000 it’s sunk into
“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
It is being touted as the biggest sporting event in the U.S., and the fourth-biggest in the world, during 2018. Its backers say it will attract more than 500,000 people and a billion-plus dollars in revenue. Yet a goodly number of Buncombe County residents appear not even to be aware that the World Equestrian Games are about to land on their doorstep. Still fewer appear to care. And of those that do, some are questioning why Buncombe County officialdom has spent more than $650,000 to sponsor an event associated with the super wealthy, and with limited general public appeal, that will be happening 50 miles and two counties away.
The rationale is that the tide of food, drink, lodging, shopping, amusement, and transportation dollars generated by these half-million well-heeled visitors will water the Greenville, Spartanburg, and Asheville economies for years to come. For the games’ September 11 – 23 run, hotels, motels, and bed-and-breakfasts as far away as Charlotte, Knoxville, and Atlanta will be booked solid. Many residents will be offering all or part of their homes for rent, as happens in Augusta during Masters week. (On this last point, Enquiring Minds reached out to City Hall, asking to what extent Asheville’s short term rentals policy might play a part; media officer Dawa Hitch referred the question to communications specialist Polly McDaniel, who did not respond.) The entire tri-city demographic, organizers say, will benefit from the Games one way or another.
Buckets of Money and High Society
The World Equestrian Games (WEG), often referred to as “the Olympics of the equestrian world” are held every four years, bisecting the Olympiad cycle. So far they have been hosted by Stockholm, The Hague, Rome, Jerez (Spain), Aachen (Germany), Lexington (Kentucky) and, in 2014, Normandy (France). Though fairly recent, they have established themselves as the premier event for people who breed, train, ride, and exhibit show horses. Worldwide, there aren’t many such folks; they comprise a rarefied and glittering club, membership in which has three requirements: an affinity for horses, social credentials, and buckets of money. The second requirement and perhaps even the first are negotiable; the third is not.
Nor does the world of show horse raising have anything — beyond horses and money — in common with its raffish cousin, the horse racing industry. From the get-go, horse racing is profit oriented, driven by the hoi polloi’s vulgar practice of betting, whether at state-sanctioned parimutuel windows or at trackside, one-on-one with flashily-dressed persons named Vinnie or Fingers. Show equestrians certainly compete for cash winnings, but these are prizes, not purses, and if you don’t know the difference and its implications — well, the tradespersons’ entrance is around the side.
Ordinary persons may purchase a daily “grounds pass” for $20.00 ($10.00 for children), which includes admission to the TIEC property and access to the concessions, but not to any events. From there, prices range up to several hundred dollars for various combinations of events, depending on date and time. Details are at https://tryon2018.com/tickets/event-tickets . All-games passes for both weeks (now sold out) went for $1,380 apiece. Week Two all-games passes are still available at this writing at $650 each. Various “VIP” events — brunches and cross country hospitality tent access, run from $175 to $575 each. “Summit Club” packages are still available from $2,600 per individual to $40,000 for an all-games table of six in the Pavilion.
The Wanda Factor, Frost’s Flip-flop, and the TDA Bandwagon
People with that kind of disposable income travel a lot by plane. That reasoning was said to have prompted former county manager Wanda Greene’s decision to spend $577,000 worth of Buncombe taxpayer funds to purchase two equestrian event sponsorships and several dozen ads in an equestrian magazine to promote Asheville Regional Airport. The events were a horse show in Wellington (Palm Beach County), Florida, staged by Equestrian Sport Productions, and the upcoming WEG. The publication was Chronicle of the Horse. The chief executive of both events and the publication is the same person: equestrian impresario Mark Bellissimo (see below). All but $897 of the $577K Greene spent came from a county economic development incentive account.
Greene’s equine expenditures were discovered last November, as the FBI’s investigation into her handling of county monies, which had begun the previous August, gained momentum. County commission chairman Brownie Newman immediately called the payments an “egregious waste,” adding, “The fact that Buncombe County taxpayer money is going to this millionaire, billionaire horse facility in a different county, I think, is really one of the biggest wastes of money I’ve ever seen.” Newman said he had no idea Greene had made the purchases until he “read about them in the newspaper” — an odd admission, perhaps, for the county’s top elected official to make.
Also piling on was Commissioner Ellen Frost, once considered a “close personal friend” of Greene, with whom she shared a love of horses. Frost, who breeds and shows horses, sometimes in Tryon, is said to have introduced Greene to Bellissimo. (A photo of the grand opening of the $125 million TIEC shows a grinning Frost front and center, alongside then Gov. Pat McCrory and Bellissimo.) But Frost chilled as the heat went up, repudiating Greene and calling the horse-related purchases “absolutely not a good idea.”
Undeterred by this negativism, in March of this year the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority invested $75,000 worth of hotel occupancy tax proceeds in its very own sponsorship of the WEG, under the banner of the Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau. This brought to $652,000 the amount of local and transient tax revenue invested in the WEG. (TDA administers the room tax proceeds, 80 per cent of which are plowed back into advertising, mostly through Peter Mayer Associates, Asheville’s advertising agency, which is located in New Orleans.)
Sharon Decker, COO of TIEC, told Enquiring Minds that TDA’s in Spartanburg, Polk, Rutherford, Cleveland, and Henderson Counties have also invested in WEG. She was not able, when interviewed, to match amounts with entities, but said the contributions “range from partnerships, sponsorships [to] making ad purchases in our publications.” Decker said she could furnish EM with contribution figures from each of those entities, but had not done so by publication time.
The North Carolina General Assembly donated $500,000 to the WEG project for water and sewer connections leading up to the TIEC property. No state dollars, however, were to be spent inside the grounds, which are private property owned by Bellissimo’s company. The NCGA has reserved another half million dollars to fund additional security, but was said to be waiting for an accurate crowd estimate before it would begin releasing those funds. (In 2010 the Kentucky general assembly spent $60 million on the Lexington games, but they were publicly supported and that cost included construction of an entire new facility.)
Boon or Boondoggle?
Half a million visitors pumping a billion dollars into a corner of the Carolinas. Buncombe has bet $650K on those figures and what they could represent in terms of profit in the county’s pocket. It’s now a less than a month until the games open, Plans have been made. Tickets have been purchased. Rooms have been booked. How’s it looking?
Room rentals for September 11 – 23, a fair index of attendance at an international event, are about average for the time of year in Buncombe, a spot check August 10 revealed. The iconic Omni Grove Park Inn, the Four Points Sheraton, the Aloft, the Haywood Park, and even the Inn at Biltmore Estate had rooms available during both Games weekends as well as during the week. Predictably some hotels near TIEC are booked up, but so far the tide of equestrian megabucks seems only to be lapping gently at the shore of Buncombe County.
First there were going to be four hotels added to the TIEC complex. Then two. Now a single hotel is under construction, with workers feverishly trying to complete it by Sept. 11. And a July update indicated all lodging at the site would be utilized by the participants, which were originally estimated at 1000 but now stand at fewer than 800. Depending on who’s talking, per-day visitor estimates have backed off from 50-60K to 30-40K. A parking lot addition, designed to accommodate 1000 cars, was still graded dirt when Enquiring Minds visited on July 30, but Decker promises that it and the hotel are on track for timely completion. “We’ll be ready,” she told EM. \
Those were the sentiments of Bellissimo himself, in a July interview with WLOS-TV. Noting that at that time a head count yielded only 91,000 tickets sold — less than 20% of the anticipated attendance — he told a reporter, “The 91,000 represents the unique individuals that have purchased tickets … if you take those numbers, and then you take a certain percentage of them go a certain day, it’s the cumulative impact of those numbers that will represent the final totals.”
Bellissimo did not explain what that meant.
Both he and Decker emphasized that there is always a flurry of latecomer reservations and ticket sales just prior to opening.
(Left: A show ring at TIEC awaits refurbishing and enlarging. (Photo by Diana Starr)
Meanwhile, back in Greater Asheville, there has been no WEG fanfare. No billboards, no media-hyped countdown, no county commission or city council proclamation. Just the humming-along that goes with the winding-down of summer tourist season and preparing for the onset of the leaf-lookers. And pop-up reminders that football season is two weekends away.
Now there’s a countdown for you.
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Stockholm, The Hague, Rome … Tryon?
How a sleepy-but-horsy town in the Blue Ridge foothills was chosen to host “The Olympics of the Equestrian World”
Tryon (population 1,621) is not even the seat of Polk County, North Carolina. That distinction belongs to Columbus (population 981), six miles east. Yet Tryon’s very obscurity has for generations made it a secret haven of the publicity-shunning great and good, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Lady Astor.
Tryon’s status as a well-kept secret among the reclusive rich, especially those who ride horses, may be compromised, however, now that its name will be on tickets and programs and medals and trophies. To help our readers understand how the village has arrived at the crossroads of tradition and ambition, we offer the following thumbnail history.
Tryon and Horses 1.0: Gentry Fleeing Mosquitoes
A byproduct of the French and Indian War was a lingering tension between Native Americans and white settlers, the ripple effect of which reached as far south as the western Carolinas. Several “forts” — really no more than houses enclosed by palisade fences — sprang up in the vicinity of the drovers’ road that would eventually become the Buncombe Turnpike. One of these was a way station known simply as “the block house” (see below). By the 1830’s the area was experiencing the first of a series of colonizations by wealthy incomers. This early lot were plantation gentry from South Carolina looking to escape the miasma and mosquitoes of the lowcountry summers. They brought with them servants, mountains of luggage, the second-best china, and their horses. Many of them settled around the spa known as Flat Rock, but some just plopped down on the southern side of the hills, where a post office settlement had been set up and named for colonial governor William Tryon. The coming of the railroad made the place more accessible, its reputation as a temperate haven with pretty scenery spread among the quality, and by the turn of the century it had become established as a genteel “country” retreat.
Tryon and Horses 1.1: The Coming of Carter P. Brown
Among locals, Carter Brown is referred to as “the man who started Tryon.” Certainly he’s the individual most responsible for establishing Tryon’s brand as a clubby center for horse-related sport. Brown was a Michigan hotelier and developer. He was also a horse lover and an amateur architect. He established himself in the Polk County countryside and invited his friends back north to do likewise. Some of them took him up on the idea and Brown, who had an interest in rustic architecture, was happy to help them settle in by designing their new country houses or by adapting old structures for them. One of these was the Block House, which had been acquired by prominent Chicagoan A. D. Plamondon. Since his arrival in Tryon, Brown had cherished the idea of founding a steeplechase, and he put the idea to Plamondon, who obliged by donating a portion of his property for the purpose. The first Block House Steeplechase was held in 1947 under the auspices of the now-iconic Tryon Riding and Hunt Club, which Brown had founded in his spare time. The event became the foothills’ equivalent of Royal Ascot, a magnet for the local gentry, horse-oriented or not. (The Block House course ran across three counties in two states, a problematic detail for law enforcement monitoring what became a very large outdoor cocktail party.)
In 1988 the steeplechase upped stakes and moved to the fledgling Foothills Equestrian Nature Center, which hosted the event until 2017. At that point the event, still called The Block House, was cherrypicked by Mark Bellissimo’s Tryon International Equestrian Center (see below).
Tryon and Horses 2.0: The Coming of Mark Bellissimo
Mark Bellissimo is a Bostonian, a product of a hallowed New England prep school (Phillips Andover), Middlebury College, and The Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. He is also a billionaire who made his early millions in airlines, software, and medical technology, and has latterly devoted his profit-creating talents to what he calls the “equestrian industry,” a term that sets traditionalists’ teeth on edge.
By his own account, Bellissimo did not become interested in things equestrian until 2004, the year he showed up in Wellington, Florida, the seat of ritzy Palm Beach County’s horsy set. Bellissimo came to play: the first thing he did was to purchase outright Wellington’s nearly broke equestrian festival. He then expanded its attractions to offer entertainment for “the masses” — his phrase — including a carousel, a tiki bar, and circus-type acts such as acrobats and fire-eaters.
The gentry were not amused by Bellissimo’s P.T. Barnum-like incursions into their white-gloved world. In particular Bellissimo found himself at odds with fellow billionaire Jeremy Jacobs, transplanted New Yorker and owner of the Boston Bruins. The ensuing battle of titans featured huge donations to rival political campaigns, and ended with Bellissimo, somewhat the worse for wear, taking most of his marbles and heading for Tryon.
Together with some local property owners, Bellissimo formed Tryon Equestrian Partners (with himself as CEO) which to date has spent more than $200 million on creating and developing the TIEC (of which he is also CEO). Bellissimo also owns the Colorado Horse Park in Parker, CO. In 2013 he bought Chronicle of the Horse, an old and respected equestrian sport tabloid based in another horsey community, Middleburg, VA. Chronicle is no longer a tabloid; it’s a glossy weekly magazine.
In which Wanda Greene placed a whole lot of ads.