"This is going to be a mark in the nation; this is going to be an international mark, right now, for generations to come," Gov. Pat McCrory said during a visit to the equestrian center's grand opening in June.
"We're kind of sitting back to watch and see what happens," said Janet Sciacca, executive director of the Carolina Foothills Chamber of Commerce. "We've heard from people who are horse people who have come from out of the area, out of the country, and they have confirmed: 'Oh yes, this is going to be the most beautiful equestrian event center in the world.'"
"I'm going; I'm done. I'm wrapping up the projects I have there and I'm buying property up here," Aussiker said last month, while taking a break from building a barn near the Tryon equestrian center. The builder and owner of Wellington Equestrian Development — whose handiwork is on countless barns and structures in Wellington — is walking away from the village because, like others, he says village leaders have made it intolerable to do business there.
"I don't want to sound like I'm vindictive; but … they don't realize what they do to all us guys that have been building there," he said. "Up here, I'll be done in three months with a full stable quicker than I would even get a permit in Florida."
Aussiker is among many small-business owners in Wellington who share Bellissmio's complaints of an "obstructionist" climate that they say forces businesses to bend to the village's rules — rather than the village collaboratively working with them as partners toward a common good.
"They exceeded everything they said they were going to do," Polk County Commission Chairman Tom Pack said last month of Bellissimo and his partners. "It's been an economic driver for us. … They've given back; they created jobs."
Since construction began in early 2014, the 1-year-old equestrian center has spawned 700 construction jobs and 500-600 part-time, seasonal jobs — using almost exclusively a local workforce and offering opportunities to unemployed and underemployed residents in the wake of the recession.
Local, county and state leaders from both the public and private sectors are coming together in a never-before-seen partnership that crosses the boundaries of several cities, five counties and two states.
By doing so, the entire region benefits from the economic boon of Bellissimo's investment, and no single community bears the growing pains that naturally come with such projects, officials said. "We realize the limitations of a small rural community, what we can and can't provide," Polk County Manager Marche Pittman said.
Local officials in Tryon also don't squabble about traffic drawn to the equestrian venue or the road improvements necessary to accommodate it, arguments that have happened frequently with Wellington's attractions because they sit off a two-lane road in the heart of the village.
"Next week, our county managers and our county sheriffs are not going to be complaining; they're going to be looking at solutions," Rutherford County Commission Chairman Bryan King said that evening. The business community is making accommodations, too. Some local shops and restaurants are adjusting their schedules to cater to equestrian visitors.
Because the resort will be self-contained — a city unto itself, with lodging, dining and shopping — visitors have less need to travel to nearby towns, causing some restaurant owners, like Suzanne Strickland, to see a dip in business.
"Business is slightly down, but I'm going to get it from other areas," Strickland said. "That's the nature of business; now I need to re-adjust. … (Tryon Resort) will be very positive, and it will be interesting to see how the towns are actually affected."
Polo remains a major attraction, and the Winter Equestrian Festival also draws a growing number of spectators and top-ranked show-jumpers every season — including big names like Jessica Springsteen, Georgina Bloomberg and Jennifer Gates, daughters of Bruce Springsteen, Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates, respectively.
"We're one of the very few communities that has a visionary like (Bellissimo) willing to invest so much into a local community," said Michela Perillo-Green, executive director of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce. "It's a shame that money would go to another community that could have been spent in Wellington."
The covered arena, show rings, stadium and stables were going to be complemented by a hotel, shops and other permanent facilities that would have made Equestrian Village a self-sustaining destination — much like what Tryon is becoming.
About four years ago, Bellissimo sought to expand that experience by building Equestrian Village. But he was met with fierce resistance from vocal critics — led by the Jacobs family — who feared the dressage venue would bring over-development to Wellington's equestrian preserve, 9,200 acres strictly regulated under village code.
"We're not anti-development. We're just anti-development in the preserve," said Charlie Jacobs, CEO of the Boston Bruins hockey team and a competitive show-jumper. "If Mark or their investors want to build a hotel or anything else they aim to do, we're certainly all for it provided it's not within the preserve."
The fight over Equestrian Village isn't over, even as the venue just finished its fourth year hosting the Global Dressage Festival. The Jacobs family, which owns a nearby condo and the 200-acre Deeridge Farm down Pierson Road, is suing over the development. A trial is scheduled for December.
In 2012, the Jacobs family — through relatives and a business empire that includes Delaware North Cos. and the Boston Bruins — spent about $800,000 on the village election to support like-minded candidates that ultimately won seats on the Wellington Council: Margolis, Vice Mayor John Greene and Councilman Matt Willhite.
But it hasn't been without lawsuits and repeated battles. When an item related to Bellissimo comes before council, it's often subjected to a level of scrutiny above what other applicants typically face.
"But I'm not going to fight to a point of just wasting a lot of people's energy," Bellissimo said. "I could stay there and spin my wheels, or I can show what we're capable of: Demonstrate and let other people judge the effectiveness of what we've created and how significant it is in the equestrian world."
The venues in Tryon and Wellington are not head-to-head competitors. While Wellington has a lock on the winter season, Tryon offers an alternative in the remaining nine months that equestrians spend traveling circuits in New York, Canada or Europe.
With its modern design and permanent features, Tryon — competitors and visitors say — has the potential to be the "best show-jumping complex in the world," jeopardizing Wellington's status as the country's elite equestrian destination.
"I wish Mark the best of luck in Tryon; I hope it's a great success," Margolis said. "If Mark is talking about a loss of revenue in the village of Wellington, I'm at a loss to understand where that's from if in fact he's had the best season ever."
Polo attracts 160,000 spectators, and the winter festival brings in more than 250,000 — including visitors and participants from 33 countries and all 50 states. They come for the venues, but live, dine and shop throughout the county. The three-month winter festival alone generates 122,000 bed-nights from which the county gets tax revenue.
"There's a ton of dollars and a big infusion of wealth that's occurred because of the Winter Equestrian Festival, and that's not going anywhere," said George Linley, executive director of the Palm Beach County Sports Commission. "Whether we could have more growth, I guess that's possible, but right now we're still experiencing growth."
"From the county level, we are doing all we can to support the entire equestrian industry, Mark's business included," said County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, a candidate for U.S. Congress. "I hate to see any industry leave us for another state and will continue to do what I can to make sure that doesn't happen."
Whether because of lessons learned from Wellington or because local rules are less restrictive, Bellissimo has found in North Carolina none of the roadblocks or red-tape commonplace in Wellington. When Bellissimo and his partners unveiled their vision last year for the Tryon International Equestrian Center and resort, local officials in western North Carolina said they quickly realized how unprepared they were for such an attraction in their backyard.
But rather than shoo Bellissimo away, scrutinize his motives or reject his proposals — reactions Bellissimo grew accustomed to in Wellington — local, county and state leaders in North Carolina have eagerly worked with him so he can build an international destination that benefits the entire region.
By Kristen M. Clark
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
POLK COUNTY, N.C. — Eighteen months ago, the valley beneath Pea Ridge was only dense forest against the picturesque backdrop of western North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains.
But in this remote area 10 miles from Tryon, Mark Bellissimo and Roger Smith saw more: the opportunity to build the world's greatest equestrian lifestyle destination.
The venue and resort they envisioned could rival if not surpass, any other — even Wellington. Today, the 1-year-old Tryon International Equestrian Center invokes awe and praise even as parts are still under construction.
"Disneyland for equestrians," local residents and visitors call it.
It's been so successful that Bellissimo, Smith and four other families now plan to invest as much as double the $100 million they first pledged into building the 1,400-acre Tryon Resort.
Some 600 miles away in Wellington, the Tryon equestrian center symbolizes what many describe as "a missed opportunity": tens of millions of dollars in capital investment, jobs and future gains Wellington could have had but chased away.
And the lost potential goes beyond the village.
Palm Beach County already reaps a $150-200 million annual economic impact from the winter equestrian season, a figure that continues to climb but could have soared if Bellissimo and his partners — who own and operate the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center (PBIEC) — kept their money in South Florida.
Bellissimo said a paralyzing political climate in Wellington, which makes it torturous to do business, drove them to look elsewhere.
Some builders and farm owners are fed up, too.
They say the village's barriers prevent the "Winter Equestrian Capital of the World" from realizing its full potential, from prospering more than it is, and from retaining its claim as the U.S.'s premier equestrian destination.
That's a recognition Tryon hopes to have.
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"It is so painful to get the most basic concept through; It's a fight to do something so benign," Bellissimo said. "There's no one spending the amount of money we're spending in the industry. And they chased it away. There's no question about it"
"The people that tell you we're not business-friendly, I believe, are the people who haven't taken advantage of everything we have to offer," Margolis said. "And maybe those people had difficulties with the village of Wellington, abiding by our codes and our regulations."
He said Wellington's building staff "bends over backwards" to work with landowners, and more often than not, he says, landowners bring obstacles on themselves — because they either don't follow or don't understand Wellington's strict approval process.
"I've seen this time and time again," Margolis said, adding: "You're always going to have people who use an excuse for something to do something else, and if those people are happy in Tryon, I wish them the best of luck."
"I know contractors that refuse to work in Wellington. They refuse, because of the animosity and the way that they're treated," said Carol Cohen, a dressage rider who owns Two Swans Farm in Wellington. Cohen was in Tryon last month looking at properties for sale because she said she's considering moving her home out of Wellington, where she's lived for more than a decade.
"It's the small-business owners in Wellington that this has hurt so badly: the riders and the farm owners, and so many people that don't have the deep pockets that this has hurt and frightened away," Cohen said.
During a council workshop a couple weeks ago, other council members voiced a similar opinion. They said they want to better promote Wellington as a business-friendly location, but they simultaneously brushed off repeated criticisms they acknowledge they've heard from the private sector — concluding that they come from "a very small group of people" with a "political agenda."
"We can't afford nor should we want to give that impression that people are replaceable," said Perillo-Green of the Wellington Chamber. "We need to be more appreciative and we need to embrace people who want to do business in this town."
Government and business leaders in Polk County said they've even heard from Wellington residents who have asked about available land, because, like Cohen or Aussiker, they're considering relocating or adding second farms there.
"Without a doubt, there's a great business potential up here," Aussiker said. "I think for somebody from Wellington, after everything that's gone on, I don't see why they wouldn't want to be up here."