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 bam 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...