Socks to Hocks
Globalization has been a scapegoat for the loss of American manufacturing jobs, and some leaders in the United States want to see us withdraw as a global partner. While these voices try to dominate the national conversation, the US is quietly hosting a major world sporting event, the FEI World Equestrian Games™ Tryon 2018 (WEG), in Mill Spring, North Carolina. Mill Spring has rebounded from manufacturing job losses and remade itself as an equine destination, a shining example of transition promoted by globalization. I just returned from WEG where I discovered details of this remarkable turnaround.
WEG is held every four years, halfway between the four-year Olympics cycle, and past host cities include Stockholm, Sweden and Rome, Italy. The event has only been held in the US one other time in Lexington, Kentucky in 2010. The 2014 competition in Normandy, France attracted over 950 athletes from 74 countries. Five hundred thousand people are expected to attend this year’s event with an estimated economic impact to the surrounding area of $400 million. Mill Spring is situated a short drive from several metro areas in North Carolina (Asheville: 50 miles; Charlotte 78 miles), South Carolina (Greenville: 59 miles), and Georgia (Atlanta: 202 miles).
How did tiny Mill Spring, NC in Polk County (population 20,558) come to have an equestrian facility to rival those in large cities in Europe? Mill Spring is located near the town of Tryon which gives its name to the competition and to the facility. The Tryon area is surrounded by natural beauty of Western North Carolina, and it has long been a popular horse riding destination. In the mid-19th century, North Carolina was the top thoroughbred state in the nascent country.
In the early 21st century, the Tryon region underwent a renaissance led by investor Mark Bellissimo after its leading industry, textiles, waned. Bellissimo’s vision was to break down the elitist atmosphere surrounding equine sports while creating an accessible, theme park-like atmosphere. Along the way, he and his investment partners have also assisted struggling manufacturing concerns to help bolster the area’s traditional economic base.
The Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC) has been operational for five years, and future plans include a resort hotel designed to attract a broad audience. A golf course and a gun club flank the facility. On-site, there are several dining establishments including a sushi restaurant, an Italian restaurant, a coffee shop, and a pub. The surrounding area offers numerous outdoor activities including mountain biking, hiking, and whitewater rafting. Throughout the year, Gladiator Polo competitions are played on sand with a small soccer ball to a raucous crowd - now on my bucket list of things to see!
Sport can be a microcosm of the world at large. Despite scattered apprehension about and mixed reviews of the FIFA World Cup in Russia this summer, the spectacle as presented to television viewers here in the US was positive. Horse riding commands a smaller audience than soccer, and television coverage for WEG will be somewhat smaller than for the World Cup. That being said, NBC plans to broadcast over 60 hours of WEG competition over the next two weeks.
The opening ceremonies for this global event were held on September 11, a date of notable significance in the US since the terror attack of 2001. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper addressed the crowd, an opportunity for our state’s highest leader to reaffirm the importance of our relationship with the global community. Press coverage of his remarks were understandably overshadowed by the impending landfall of Hurricane Florence on the East coast.
During my visit to WEG, I experienced a tremendous sense of pride upon seeing the two rows of national flags from many countries - approximately fifty of them - at the entrance to the TIEC. Beginning with my first trip abroad to Nepal in 1993, I have relished being part of our global community. This former textile town, once dealt a heavy blow by globalization as jobs moved offshore, is now hosting the world, showcasing what our state and country has to offer. Life is a circle, we will meet again. Our changing place in the world can show up in unexpected places.