Photo by Dr. David Marlin
In Tryon, the much-heralded World Equestrian Games depart —
trailing mud, blame, and a lot of Buncombe taxpayer money.
“The tumult and the shouting dies; the captains and the kings depart” — Rudyard Kipling
MILL SPRING, NC — The World Equestrian Games rode off into the sunset last week like the outlaw Josey Wales, wounded and looking at an uncertain future. They left behind, in this hamlet just east of Tryon, a half-finished show venue, a litany of setbacks and screw-ups, and a seven-figure net loss.
Oh, there had been some exquisite horseflesh on display, performing magnificently for their talented riders. There had been glamour in bucketfuls, courtesy of glittering owners and trainers from around the world and the cream of American horsey-set society. The medals and trophies had been awarded, with sufficient pomp and glory, to the winners. But at day’s end, to the real stakeholders — who’d been hoping for direct or collateral profit from all this — WEG 2018 was a train wreck of epic proportions.
One of those stakeholders was Buncombe County, which, in a three-year period, sank $577,000 into sponsoring equestrian events here and in Florida, and also into advertising in magazines owned and published by impresario Mark Bellissimo (see below) who brought the Games to Tryon.
The World Equestrian Games, begun in 1990, have become a Very Big Deal in the international equestrian community. They are held every four years, Olympics-like. The 2014 edition was hosted in Stockholm, and in 2010 the games were held in Lexington, Kentucky, the first time they had been hosted in the United States.
The contract for this year’s Games was first awarded to Bromont, Quebec, but in October of 2016 it was announced that Bromont had not been able to raise the necessary capital; the Games were suddenly up for grabs. This set up a lightning raid by billionaire Bellissimo, who had just suffered a rare setback –he had tried to acquire an equestrian event in ritzy Wellington, Florida, but his P.T. Barnum approach to marketing didn’t sit well with the conservative and just-as-rich Jacobs family, who blocked him — and was looking for a new project. Bellissimo assured the Federation Equestre International (FEI), which produces the Games, that he could shore up the event with his own money and even offer an existing facility to build on.
True enough. The facility was the Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC), which Bellissimo and his partners had created, at a cost of $125 million, on the site of an old golf course. TIEC was already a going concern; moreover, Bellissimo had strategically-placed friends in area governmental circles who could help grease the skids. They included two Buncombe County officials, County Commissioner Ellen Frost and her “close personal friend” County Manager Wanda Greene.
And meanwhile, Back at the Ranch …
Frost rides, raises, and shows horses; in fact, her ponies have won events at TIEC. She is said to have introduced Bellissimo to Greene; later, while TIEC was still in the planning stage, Frost, Greene, then-Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton, and former Commission Chairman David Gantt, met with Bellissimo and his partners to discuss how Buncombe County might benefit from the facility.
The potential benefits, it seemed, all involved first investing money. Apparently on the premise that horse owners travel by plane a lot, Greene & Co. decided to promote Asheville Regional Airport. They did this by sponsoring the 2015 Asheville Regional Airport Grand Prix (total cost: $210,000) at TIEC, as well as a show in Wellington produced by Equestrian Sport Productions (ESP) and a series of elaborate ads in Chronicle of the Horse magazine. Bellissimo owns both ESP and Chronicle, in addition to TIEC. In all, it was later discovered, Greene had spent $577,000 on equine advertising … and had somehow managed, county commissioners said, to do so without any of them knowing she had spent a penny.
With still a year to go before the WEG, the FBI began probing Wanda Greene’s handling of county funds. The WEG payments were discovered in November (including a check for $125,000 that Greene’s office had posted as only $25,000), and commissioners raced to see who could express the most shock and outrage first. Chairman Brownie Newman called the expenditures “an egregious waste,” and, sounding more like a populist than a progressive, added, “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.”
And Commissioner Frost, Greene’s erstwhile buddy, chilled as the heat went up, repudiating Greene and calling the horse-related purchases “absolutely not a good idea.”
As the new year began, the WEG hype ramped up. Bellissimo’s media cranked out factoids that were inhaled by local news outlets eager to help steer the bandwagon: WEG would be “the largest sporting event in the United States, in 2018.” There would be 800 horses and 1,000 riders from 70 foreign countries taking part. NBC would be providing live coverage. Merchants and hoteliers as far away as Atlanta and Knoxville were told to brace for 500,000 visitors, who would flood the area with a golden tsunami of half a billion — with a “b” — tourist dollars. At the games site, four company-owned hotels would be prepared to receive owners and their retinues, with extensive new housing being constructed for support staff.
And, undeterred by the party-pooping negativism of the Wanda Greene news, 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.)
Yet as Spring and Summer rolled along the Games venue looked less like a work in progress and more like a stagnating construction site. In an ominous foreshadowing, May rains turned the raw earth into a quagmire which eventually dried but prompted the first stirrings of nervousness. The attendance forecast was cut to 400,000. But Bellissimo dismissed the delays and setbacks as mere hiccups and the media dutifully reported that all was well.
First came the rain; the remnant of Hurricane Florence brushed the games site, dumping three inches of it and turning everything dirt into oatmeal. There were traffic snarls and logistical problems. A horse had to be euthanized. Midway through the games’ run, it was disclosed that the state’s Department of Environmental Quality had issued multiple violation notices to TIEC for “exceeding water pollution standards” in surrounding creeks, as a result of construction. A second horse had to be put down. Grooms and other workers complained about their accommodations (they ended up in tents). Bellissimo tossed out a sorry-for-all-the-fuss-folks apology and said on-with-the-show.
Then there was the bottom line: Attendance was put at 200,000, about 40% of the original projection. Bellissimo himself reckoned a net loss of $1.5 million for the games themselves. An Asheville Regional Airport spokesperson said traffic there appeared normal for September. Asheville Convention and Visitors’ Bureau CEO Stephanie Pace Brown told Enquiring Minds, “It will not be possible to assess the impact of WEG with data we will have – that data will report year over year changes in hotel performance, but will not provide insights about the influences of that visitation.” So the actual effectiveness of the $652,000 Buncombe dollars spent on WEG 2018 will probably never be quantified.
But if Buncombe ever decides it wants to bet on the horses — or the horse business — again, Bellissimo says he aims to make sure TIEC will be there to furnish the opportunity. “The world is full of critics and the fact is critics don’t write great novels, they don’t create great companies, they don’t invent cures,” he said in a Reuters interview the day after the Games closed. “There are a thousand reasons why this place should not exist and very few reasons it should,” he said, “and we spent a lot of time focused on why it should”
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