By Steve Keating
TRYON, North Carolina (Reuters) - Mark Bellissimo, the man who brought the FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) to this bucolic corner of recession ravaged North Carolina is widely viewed as a saviour for bringing jobs and hope to the depressed region.
Not so says Bellissimo, deferring to an elderly employee who works in one of the sprawling facility's kitchens who has apparently taken credit.
"I interact a lot with our staff and a woman who is our baker, she comes up to me and says, 'I just want you to know I am responsible for the success of Tryon'," Bellissimo told Reuters.
"I said, thank you and I would love to hear more and she said, 'eight years ago I prayed that someone would rescue this community, someone with a million dollars and you came and it is because of me'."
Situated in the U.S. bible belt, all this would seem a very plausible explanation for an equestrian Taj Mahal popping up under the gaze of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
What is not plausible is that Bellissimo rode to the rescue with a million dollars.
To get the Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC) ready for the WEG, Bellissimo and his partners pumped more than $200 million into the effort.
By the end of the year that number will rise to $250 million as he pushes ahead with plans to make the TIEC the world's premiere equestrian lifestyle destination.
The ambition is to build a sort of upscale Disneyland for riders and horses on the 1600 acre property complete with condos, hotels, restaurants and bars.
For Bellissimo, the WEG provided the opportunity to make a two-week global sales pitch for the newest addition to his equestrian empire that includes facilities in Wellington, Florida and Denver.
While Wellington represents a $100 million plus business in equestrian sport, it is Tryon where he sees a real upside describing the project as, "bold" but also "potentially stupid".
"Someone said to me that this community lost its hope, the textile industry just disappeared and there really wasn't a lot to hang onto," said Bellissimo, who rarely rides, doesn't sleep much and has no personal assistant.
"I would say this has turned into much more than an investment to me.
"We have changed the local economy and given it hope. We have created thousands of jobs, spent $250 million.
"I tell my kids this all the time.
"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.
"Criticism is important but it shouldn't be the lasting legacy."
International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach took in the final day's action on Sunday and might have been struck by the legacy being left by the WEG.
Around the world, expensive facilities built for various Olympic Games have ended up as white elephants, but that will not be the case in Tryon, Bellissimo says.
"To me everything you build needs to have some level of return on investment," explained Bellissimo. "I sat on top of that hill over there and sketched out this venue. I have drawn every building and designed every element.
"There are a thousand reasons why this place should not exist and very few reasons it should and we spent a lot of time focused on why it should exist."
For Bellissimo, Tryon is an equestrian Field of Dreams.
Those that do come will be bringing piles of money in their saddle bags, and with that jobs.
Horse racing may be the sport of kings but equestrian can also boast a Fortune 500 stable of billionaires.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Apple's Steve Jobs both have daughters who compete as does Ariana Rockefeller, grand daughter of banking billionaire David Rockefeller.
Rocker Bruce Springsteen's daughter Jessica battled for a spot on the U.S. show jumping team while Gina-Maria Schumacher, daughter of Formula One great Michael Schumacher, is a champion in reining.
While the well-heeled crowd will help pay for Bellissimo's vision, it is the people in and around the hamlets of Tryon and Mill Springs who he says will benefit.
For this bible belt, Bellissimo is the answer to their prayers. To the equestrian establishment he is a devilish interloper determined to shake up the sport with the objective of making it more interesting and accessible.
He wants to introduce new events such as gladiator polo, a tricked up version of the sport more often associated with royalty.
Next year he plans to take things a step further and stage the WEX Games, an extreme equestrian version of the X Games.
The idea is to pull in a younger engaged crowd in much the same way the IOC has courted the same group by embracing sports like Big Air, skicross and skate boarding.
"The goal is to get people interested in horses," summed up Bellissimo. "Look at Olympics, surfing, beach volleyball, skate boarding.
"Nothing has killed more companies, more countries, more communities than the preservation of the status quo.
"I think every equestrian sport is in decline.
"It's expensive and we need to figure ways to lower costs, make it much more spectator friendly.
"The problem is with equestrian sport people are so fascinated by their own sport."
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)