Polk County awaits opening of equestrian center

Asheville Citizen-TimesJuly 17, 2014 

— Tryon Resort, a sprawling $100 million equestrian center and luxury resort, is opening this summer in Polk County with events that could attract horse lovers and riders from across the country and worldwide, bringing a boost to the region's economy.

Developers unveiled plans Wednesday for a 150-room hotel to open summer 2017 off U.S. 74. The hotel site overlooks Tryon International Equestrian Center, already nearing completion.

Five horse rings are installed with 500 permanent stables. Still to come are a 6,000-seat outdoor stadium with floodlights, more horse rings, a sports center, a covered arena and an additional 500 stables.

Tryon International Equestrian Center hosted its first event along July 2 with the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club.

"Our goal is to create a special place that focuses on the passion and love for both horses and horse sport," said Mark Bellissimo, one of the founders of Tryon Equestrian Partners. "We wanted to build in a community that's really steeped in the horse world with tremendous weather. We believe the resort will be a major job engine and contributor to the community's economic recovery."

Altogether, the resort will cover 1,400 acres.

The guest properties will be operated with Salamander Hotels & Resorts, founded in 2005 by Sheila Johnson, who also founded the Black Entertainment Television network, and is an owner of three professional sports teams in Washington.

Johnson's company operates the Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Va., an equestrian center outside of Washington. The company also has three golfing destinations: the Innisbrook Resort near Tampa, Reunion Resort in Orlando and Hammock Beach Resort in Palm Beach.

"There is tremendous synergy between our Middleburg Resort and Tryron Resort. They'll be sister properties and we'll be able to market the area to our guests and clients from around the world" said Johnson, a longtime friend who praised Bellissimo's leadership in the equestrian community.

Bellissimo was instrumental in building up the Winter Equestrian Festival at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. That festival generates close to 100,000 room nights for the Palm Beach area from January to March, as well as attracting more than 6,000 horses from the U.S. and 30 other countries.

He said he believes Tryon Resort could generate similar economic success in Polk County, which already enjoys one of the state's lowest unemployment rates — 4.2 percent in April.

A multimillion dollar resort catering to well-to-do equestrian fans won't just bring hundreds of service and hospitality jobs to the region, according to Steve Morse, a tourism economist at Western Carolina University.

"It will also bring people who might not have been here before who might want to start a business or bring a company here," Morse said. "Many of our investors started as tourists."

Bellissimo was introduced to the area by Polk County native Roger Smith, who is also one of the founders of the Tryon Equestrian Partners.

The group of partners bought the bankrupt White Oak golfing community in late 2012 for $11 million, then bought adjacent land to build the 1,400-acre resort. The project has already employed about 500 construction workers to move 1.6 million cubic feet of earth in the past five months.

"That's more dirt than was moved for the South Carolina Inland Port near Greenville," Bellissimo said.

Workers have laid more than seven miles of fiber optic cable and built 20 permanent structures, including the new Log Cabin Village. An RV park will provide other facilities for visitors.

Future development will include a second luxury hotel and spa near the Arnold Palmer-design golf course as well as private luxury residences and rentals. Bellissimo said he anticipates the whole build-out could be completed sometime in 2017.

N.C. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker, a Rutherford County resident, praised the partners for their investment in the community.

"The state has a role in economic development, but at the end of the day, it's about attracting private dollars," she said. "These partners could have done this in a number of places, but they chose the foothills of North Carolina to create these jobs."

Located in the Thermal Belt, a geographical temperate zone about an hour's drive between airports in Asheville, Greenville, S.C., and Charlotte, Polk County bills itself as one of the top equine communities in the country.

The Tryon area has a storied history in equestrian sports, considered the birth place of modern show jumping where the 1956 and 1960 Olympic trials were held.

With the Tryon International Equestrian Center, economic developers anticipate a 30 percent growth in horse-related jobs in the next decade.

Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com

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