Written by Jennifer Fitzgerald (April 2017)
In Polk County, pleasant surprises abound: big-city opportunities in a small-town setting.
Polk County, located in the Western North Carolina foothills south of Asheville and bookended by Hendersonville to the west and Rutherfordton to the east, is a truly unique place, an area rich with history and full of friendly folks. The natural beauty will take your breath away and the small-town charm will make you never want to leave.
Crys Armbrust, commissioner and mayor pro tem for the Town of Tryon, describes the area as “living in paradise.”
“The geographic place itself is compellingly beautiful,” he says, ticking off the county’s attributes. “The famed, mild, Thermal Belt weather is certainly rarified. The region’s history holds some national importance in several cultural and artistic contexts—peopled by individuals, some famed and some even infamous, who have made significant contributions to both our nation and world. And lastly, I appreciate the camaraderie of simple everyday encounters with truly fascinating backgrounds, who, if not born here, have chosen to make this place ‘their’ place.”
The county population of almost 21,000 consists of the county seat of Columbus, Tryon, Saluda, Green Creek, Cooper Gap, and White Oak. Conveniently located to Interstate 26 and Highways 74 and 176, residents are only 30 minutes from Spartanburg, an hour from Asheville, and an hour and a half from Charlotte. For this reason, 53 percent of Polk County’s employed residents work outside of the county. The average commute time is 26.8 minutes.
The Economy 1.0
As with many other areas of Western North Carolina, growth in Polk County was slowed by the Great Recession, but growth signs have been emerging in recent years.
“The east and southeast areas of the county—Mill Spring and Green Creek—have seen the most property sales activity of late,” says Jim Edwards, Polk County interim economic development director. “Much of this activity has been driven by the development of Tryon International Equestrian Center, located on U.S. Highway 74 and Pea Ridge Road.”
“The standout change in Polk County, with greatest direct and indirect economic impact, is, no doubt, the implementation and startup of the Equestrian Center,” agrees Armbrust. “The expansive, 2,000+ acre facility, nestled in an impressive Blue Ridge setting, brings world-class, competitive equestrian sports to our region. Beyond its local and regional impact, the facility continues to grow as an acclaimed international destination, and will, in fact, serve as host of the 2018 World Equestrian Games.”
History 1.0: All That is Equine
To understand the impact of the Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC), one must look at the important equestrian history of Polk County. In his 1977 book, History of Old Tryon and Rutherford Counties, author Clarence W. Griffin explains that around 1836, “a group of sportsmen from lower South Carolina established a race course from near what is now known as the Dick Owens place in Sandy Plains, about three miles along the route surveyed for (this) railroad.” Many coming to the area during that time brought fine horses with them to travel from resort to resort.
The area’s modern day connection to all that is equine began in 1917 when a horseman named Carter Brown arrived in Tryon and, according to Griffin, “put Tryon on the horse map.” He was the founder of the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club in 1925. He also started a fox hunt, the Tryon Hounds, in 1926, and was the “guiding light” of the Tryon Horse Show and the father of steeplechasing in Tryon.
When Mark Bellissimo looked for a location to complement his Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, Polk County was a logical choice.
“I had been evaluating creating a spring/summer/fall circuit along the East Coast for a couple of years as a complement to our Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, which is the world’s largest horse show,” says Bellissimo, the managing partner of Tryon Equestrian Partners. “The goal was to create an equestrian lifestyle destination centered around a resort that would serve a broad range of demographics and equestrian interests. The area had to have great weather, central location on the East Coast, a strong equestrian infrastructure, supportive local government, ability to aggregate horse show events (geographically constrained by licensing requirements of various governing bodies), a strong lodging and hospitality infrastructure, and a large property footprint, i.e., approximately 1,500 acres which was both affordable and accessible from a highway network. Those are challenging requirements [that narrowed] the options down considerably.
“Roger and Jennifer Smith, who are business partners in Wellington, and dear friends, live in Polk County and have a great passion for the area. Over the years, we attended the Block House Steeplechase with them and we were enchanted with both the locale, the equestrian heritage, and the energy of the people in the community. The area had been hit hard with a combination of the Great Recession and the loss of the textile economy. While we viewed this as a business opportunity, we were equally inspired by the prospect of trying to re-energize a community with a vision and a business strategy that could be a strong driver of economic activity and stimulate interest in the area. It is not often that one gets an opportunity to be part of such an ambitious plan.”
Bellissimo acknowledges that this is all a work in progress, citing, for example, the current lack of lodging and hospitality infrastructure as a “major constraint in the short term.” But, he adds, “Our passion for the area and the people drove us to invest our way out of that problem. I believe we are well on the way to becoming the premier equestrian lifestyle destination in the world that will have a broad impact on, at the very least, a six-county area.”
A soft opening of the TIEC was held in October 2014. Actually located in the Mill Spring area of Polk County (4066 Pea Ridge Rd.; Tryon.coth.com), it is a stunning facility that brings many of the world’s top equestrian athletes to the area. The TIEC welcomes guests “365 days a year to watch, dine, shop, and experience one of the premier riding facilities in the world built for the love of horses and our sport.”
To invite more people to experience the sport, there is free admission and parking for most events. “Saturday Night Lights” is a Grand Prix equestrian event featuring food, live music, and the highest level of competitive show jumping on select Saturday evenings throughout the year. It is a free, fun, festive, family-oriented event.
The news that the TIEC will host the 2018 Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) World Equestrian Games was announced last August and brings a global event to Polk County. Seventy nations will be represented, with an estimated overall attendance of 500,000. Four new hotels are in the works for the TIEC, which currently has the Stable House Inn, over 100 RV spots, and cabins on-site.
The TIEC currently employs 169 individuals in the off season and that number will grow when the season picks up in April. Several hundred have been involved in construction of the property alone. A preliminary economic impact study of visitors at TIEC, prepared for the Polk County Economic Development Office in 2015, showed the Center responsible for over $9.2 million dollars injected into the economy. Long-range plans include developing a 47-acre Tryon Village with a hotel, condos, apartments, fitness center, water park, and retail spaces.
“TIEC has brought opportunity to the area while maintaining the scenic beauty and southern hospitality that attracted us all here to begin with,” says Bellissimo. “We’ve employed over 700 construction workers alone just to develop the first phase of the facility, not to mention additional hospitality and operations staff, and that number will only grow as we prepare for FEI World Equestrian Games 2018. In addition to jobs, we are attracting new visitors to the area who are quickly becoming repeat visitors, which is also stimulating the local economy.”
The Economy 2.0
Polk County’s Jim Edwards says the county has a “fairly diverse economy,” with healthcare and education being the largest employment sectors. If seasonal and part-time employment is counted, the TIEC now has the largest number of employees in the county. Small businesses—retail, services, trades—are relatively numerous in relation to the county’s size.
Preliminary numbers from the Polk County Office of Economic Development put the count of businesses at over 800, again, high relative to the population. Businesses run the gamut from agricultural enterprises, to small and medium tradesmen operations, to professional and financial services and retail. Polk County has no “big box” retailers—a fact which local residents are proud to tell you about. Manufacturing is generally smaller-scale than that found in the surrounding counties, with fewer than 50 employees in the sector for the county. Polk enjoys a strong history of small entrepreneurial start-ups that are experiencing success. ( To see the January 2017 Capital at Play list of manufacturers in Western North Carolina counties, go to CapitalatPlay.com/resources.)
An example of one such business is Mg¹², whose current CEO, Tom Strader, bought the company in 2014 from Dave and Drew Banks, who had originally marketed it under the name Magnesoothe, and set up operations in Tryon.
John Marino, vice president of sales and operations, explains that the company’s all-natural magnesium-rich topical supplements are developed from Dead Sea salts that are sent to them in raw form from Israel. “Most Americans are deficient in magnesium,” says Marino. “We supply magnesium products that you apply transdermally. No pill form. We sell mostly to people who are having some pain. We make everything here in Tryon and send them all over the country and even internationally.”
Last year, Mg¹² (Mg12.com) sold to 56 health food stores regionally. Today they are in 350 stores nationwide. Last year’s sales were $500,000 and they are looking at a million dollars in sales this year.
Their products are available at retail locations in Polk County, as well as a small brick and mortar location at their Tryon facility. They offer a full website and a presence on every social media platform. The products ship to Southeast locations within two days; West Coast, within a week.
“The community has really rallied around us,” says Marino. “We are one of the few manufacturers in Polk County. We have a total of seven employees—some are part-time. As we increase our production, we can double in size and not have to add anyone onto the team.”
The downtown areas of Columbus, Saluda, and Tryon are charming and unique. Tryon in particular has recently seen significant revitalization in its downtown area.
“The present surge in downtown Tryon’s economic growth is based on an economic development strategy involving focused, public-private partnerships to accomplish projects both great and small,” says Mayor Pro Tem Armbrust. “The endeavor has been ongoing for a number of years and involves the proactive efforts of numerous individuals and organizations. The specific end goals for the Tryon community have been: 1) to build investor confidence; 2) to diversify business opportunities; 3) to enhance consumer experience; while, at the same time, preserving the architectural fabric of the historic downtown, creating downtown destination events for residents and visitors alike, and celebrating the unique artistic and cultural history that makes Tryon an exemplary place to live, work, and play.”
Armbrust served as Tryon’s economic development director for seven years, during which time the foundational groundwork for much of the revitalization presently occurring in downtown Tryon took place.
“That work has been greatly assisted with collateral fiscal support by both private investors and successful bids for grant funding from the North Carolina Department of Commerce’s (Small Town) Main Street program,” continues Armbrust. “Core grants have included a (former) Rural Center Economic Innovation grant and two Main Street Solution grants. These grants have resulted in the rehabilitation of the historic 1906 Tryon Depot and the creation of two public gathering spaces in downtown Tryon: the St. Luke’s Plaza and the Depot Plaza. The 1906 Depot project, in 2012, and the St. Luke’s Plaza project, in 2014, each received the Department of Commerce’s singular (Small Town) Main Street Economic Restructuring Award.”
Scott and Gayle Lane have completed renovations on the Missildine Drug Store building along with Tryon Federal Bank and the Jackson building. New businesses have moved into the spaces located on Trade Street and joined the collection of established businesses in the area. The Lanes also recently purchased the local movie theater and plan to renovate it as well.
Vines of Tryon Gift Shop and Boutique (VinesofTryon.com), owned by John and Ann Gargiulo, is one of those established businesses. Their store has been in business for 22 years, and they purchased it 16 years ago and expanded. Eight years ago they moved into their current location at the Shops of Tryon center, 112 North Trade Street.
“My husband and I retired from New York City and we came directly down here,” says Ann Gargiulo. “We discovered it because of horses. I was involved in horses even though we lived in Manhattan. We read an article about small horse-friendly towns in the South, and Tryon was one of them.”
Their store caters to local retirees by having a good variety of things so they don’t have to travel to a big city, and also to tourists that can come and see unique things they don’t find in their towns.
The Gargiulos have seen Polk County become more upscale over the years. “The median age continues to grow so the retirees are continuing to come, although we get a lot of families who commute or work from their homes on the computer,” says Ann. “I think the TIEC has made people aware of Tryon that didn’t hear about it before. They had heard more of Saluda. That, and other things like the renovation of the buildings, new businesses. People from the larger cities want to come enjoy a smaller town and shop and have nice restaurants and find unique things—have a nice experience.”
Most tourists that visit their shop are from south of Polk County—Greenville and Spartanburg, Charlotte, Charleston, and also some from Hendersonville and Asheville.
What’s the biggest challenge the Gargiulos face as small business owners? “Here or anywhere, it’s labor intensive; as a small business owner we are kind of doing everything. We don’t have the advantages of a big corporation and having a tech guy on hand and a marketing guy on hand. Also, keeping up with the times, particularly in products and services. It’s constantly evolving. There are trends that come and go. What we carry now and what we carried 10 years ago is totally different. You’ve got to keep evolving.”
Just across the way from Vines, at the Shops of Tryon, you will find Karolyn (who answers to “K”) and Scott Hooper. This husband and wife team opened Hoop’s Antiques and Vintage Collectibles (HoopsAntiques.com) last November. Both had recently retired from the Army—K with 23 years of service and Scott with 26 years, and they were aspiring entrepreneurs looking for a place to start a new business. They say they began to wonder “what are we going to do when we grow up” and subsequently “got the bug” to launch a business of their own.
When stationed in Fort Bragg in 2009, someone told them they needed to visit Asheville. They stayed at the Grove Park Inn and fell in love with Western North Carolina. K was going to Afghanistan, and a few months later Scott was going to Iraq.
They wanted to retire on a lake and discovered Lake Adger in Polk County. With the assistance of a realtor, they bought their home sight unseen while still in Afghanistan and Iraq. Upon returning to the States, they looked at the area known as the “String of Pearls”— Tryon, Columbus, Saluda, and Landrum, South Carolina—as possible locations for a store. They came to Tryon and saw the newly renovated Missildine building, but learned that all the retail space was taken. John Gargiulo introduced himself and showed them the space they now occupy in the Shops of Tryon. Instead of taking a year off and enjoying Army retirement, they jumped in and opened last November.
“We didn’t have a clue,” says Scott. “But I think it was our Army experience, and Jamie Carpenter, with the Tryon Downtown Development Association (TDDA), was phenomenal. She was one of the first people we met.” Carpenter provided them, along with other potential business owners, an “Opening a Business Checklist.” SCORE Western Carolina (Service Core of Retired Executives), which serves eight area counties, was also a great source of information for the Hoopers, as well as an Army-sponsored program called Boost a Business, which helps determine if entrepreneurship is the right path for you.
Most of their furniture is from Europe. And they carry a full line of Polish pottery.
“We want there to be something for everyone,” says K. “The store is a mix of antique, vintage, and contemporary. But we think it all kind of fits together—where the old and new world meet. All of the businesses here are awesome. We love working together. We are so excited about being part of the revitalization of this town.”
“We love the people,” agrees Scott. “K says she has the best job in the world—she gets to buy things, then decorate, and spend the day talking to nice people.”
The Hoopers, along with their “Community Outreach Section” of dogs, Xena the Warrior Princess and T-Bone, look forward to the future.
Due to its location in the Thermal Belt, Polk County sees milder temperatures than other parts of Western North Carolina. The warmer temperatures contribute to longer growing seasons than in the surrounding region. The average annual temperature is 59 degrees, and average annual snow fall is nine inches. The Thermal Belt refers to a mountainside zone where frost or freezing temperatures are less likely to occur than they are at either higher or lower elevations.
Scott Welborn, Polk County extension director with the North Carolina State Cooperative Extension, shares that in order to have a thermal belt, you must live in the foothills or in a mountainous region. A typical thermal belt is formed on a mountainside and not on flat land. Heat absorbed by the soil during the day radiates from the soil surface of the mountain at night and rises into the free air. This radiation of heat makes the air closest to the soil surface colder than the free air. The cold air situated near the ground then moves downward into the valley below (cold air sinks). The movement of cold air to the valley forces what warm air there is in the valley upward. During the night there is a continuous interchange of cold air from the mountain surface and warmer free air from the valley.
Meanwhile, there is a continuous movement of air above the mountain ridges. This rapidly moving air traps the rising warmer free air. Thus, a band of warm air is created with colder air both above and below it, forming a thermal belt.
In Polk County, the Tryon-Columbus area is protected on the north and northwest from the cold winds of winter by a crescent of 2,500 to 3,000 foot mountains. These same mountains are what help to form the Thermal Belt. According to a United States Weather Bureau Report, there are some “peculiar topographical features near Tryon that affect the flow of air” causing some remarkable variations in temperature.
Polk County has been steeped in an “AGRI”-culture since before its creation in 1855. The fertile soils of the stream/river bottoms and rolling foothills, along with the Thermal Belt, make it prime for farm diversity. Dawn Jordan, agricultural economic development director for Polk County, says a variety of livestock, including cows (beef and dairy), bison, alpacas, goats, sheep, equine, and poultry can be found throughout the county. Bees and aquaculture are also farmed in Polk. Vegetable crops, fruit crops, hay, and forage crops, as well as hydroponics and aquaponics, can be found here.
“The demand for local food is continuing to rise,” says Jordan. “This creates an opportunity for new farm businesses to develop and current operations to diversify by adding niche products such as making blueberry syrup from local blueberries along with offering pick your own days. Growing trends in agriculture we have seen include intensive orchard production, year-round greenhouse production, and trout farms. We are also seeing an increase in more ‘homestead’ models of farming, particularly among retirees moving to the area.”
Jordan also sees a marked interest from the 25 to 35 year-old demographic looking to make agriculture a career. She finds this encouraging as current farmers move into retirement age and want to see the continuance of farming as a career and lifestyle.
Living the Good Life
As suggested above, the call of a mild climate, combined with all the amenities of living in Polk County, brings many retirees to the area to live. In fact, 53.8 percent of Polk County’s residents were not born in North Carolina. Many visit and even retire from the Columbia and Charleston areas to escape the summer heat. Thirty-five percent of the county’s population is age 60 or older. The average annual retirement income is $30,490.
“We have a lot of transplants who come down to enjoy a similar life at a cheaper value or even a better life for a lot of people,” says Tryon Town Manager Zach Ollis. “We are in the Thermal Belt, so geographically the climate is more ideal year-round. A lot of people, when they get to their retirement age, don’t want to deal with 40 inches of snow that you get up north. They want to come down here, see it once, and be done with it. Still in the mountains, but a better climate.”
There are several retirement communities, including White Oak Village in Tryon and Tryon Estates in Columbus, which offer many levels of care, from independent living to skilled nursing care. Tryon Estates, owned by Acts Retirement-Life Communities, has approximately 400 residents and 225 employees.
Raising a Family
Just as the quality of life entices many to retire to the area, it also plays a role in young families moving to the area looking for a great spot to raise their children. Real estate is priced more affordably than in nearby larger markets, with the estimated median value of owner-occupied housing at $173,600.
“I’ve been in Tryon for 15 years and raised four kids here,” says Marino of Mg¹². “I was in a corporate environment for most of my career and moved around a lot. I was looking for a small town to raise my kids in, and I found Tryon and really fell in love with it. It’s a great little small town, but it has a great arts community—the theater, music—[and] school systems are great. It has a lot of outdoor activities. Within 10 miles we have over 20 hiking trails.”
“People really look out for each other and come together,” says the TDDA’s Carpenter. “People create their own family here. It’s like a big extended family.”
The Polk County School System serves approximately 2,300 students in grades Pre-K through 13, and consists of seven schools: four elementary, one middle, one traditional comprehensive high school, and one early college.
School Superintendent Aaron Greene says he “is passionate about our district, community, and, most importantly, our students and families. When taken as a composite, our performance on accountability measures (assessments, graduation rate, etc.) placed us second out of the 115 traditional public school districts in the state for 2015-2016. We have been recognized and have won numerous awards for our academic achievement, but would rather tout our student-centered culture and working to educate the whole child rather than just list our test scores.”
The Polk County Community Foundation is recognized as a large contributor to the quality of life in the area. The Foundation’s goals of advancing philanthropy and improving that quality for all citizens are accomplished through charitable donations of all sizes, received from community members and then distributed as grants to area nonprofits and scholarships for local students.
Also adding to the quality of life in Polk County is St. Luke’s Hospital. For more than 85 years, the individualized attention and teamwork St. Luke’s staff displays in caring for patients has helped dispel the myth that bigger is better. The hospital has been recognized by the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Joint Commission, the American College of Radiology, the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment, Carolinas HealthCare System, and, of course, by their patients. The hospital is home to a 24-hour physician-staffed emergency department, a new patient care wing that opened in 2013, and a new 5,500-sq.-ft. rehab center. Patients receive attentive and professional care in all-private rooms, including a six-bed intensive care unit, a 19-bed medical-surgical unit, and a new six-bed orthopedic unit. St. Luke’s Hospital is a private, nonprofit community hospital with an all-volunteer board of trustees who live in Polk County.
History 2.0: The Name Game
Years before the Revolution, families had settled amid the Cherokee hunting lands. Conflicts between the settlers and the Cherokee brought Royal Governor William Tryon to the area to negotiate a boundary line with the Cherokees—from a point near Greenville in South Carolina to the highest peak on White Oak Mountain. Polk, named to honor Revolutionary War hero Colonel William Polk, did not achieve county status until 1855. Columbus, the county seat, was named for Dr. Columbus Mills of Mill Spring.
Polk County and Saluda are infamous among railroad enthusiasts for the Saluda Grade, the steepest standard-gauge mainline railway grade in the United States. Norfolk Southern suspended freight traffic indefinitely along this route in December 2001. (The April 2016 issue of Capital at Play had an in-depth look at the history of trains in Western North Carolina.)
Tourism— “It’s What We Don’t Have That Makes Us Special.”
Tourism is key to the local economy as visitors to Polk County spent nearly $24 million in 2014, supporting a payroll of $3.37 million for 180 employees in local travel and tourism related businesses. These visitors discover Polk County as “The First Peak of the Blue Ridge” known for its small towns, scenic beauty, outdoor recreation, and equestrian history.
“Over the years, we have been blessed with new tourism businesses centered on those themes, which help to preserve our rolling farmland and scenic mountain views,” says Melinda Massey, travel and tourism director for Polk County. “Five wineries, The Gorge Zipline, and the Tryon International Equestrian Center are just a few examples of attractions that make the most of our strengths. We like to say ‘It’s what we don’t have that makes us special.’ You won’t find big boxes here, but you will find an original mix of local shops, mom-and-pop restaurants, galleries, farmer’s markets, and events.”
Mindy Wiener is director of Our Carolina Foothills, a nonprofit that came about to promote tourism working with local chambers of commerce. The organization is a marketing arm for Landrum (South Carolina), Tryon, Columbus, and Saluda.
Wiener moved to Polk County from Los Angeles 10 years ago to raise her children. She most enjoys the quality of life she found.
“As small as the towns are, you can always find someone that you don’t know that has an interesting story,” says Wiener. “The diversity is amazing. For me to have been able to simplify and spend time with my children has been really lovely—in a place that is gorgeous. The safety, clean air, clean water—the things you can’t find in big cities—and the friendly people.”
Wiener cites the location of being right in the middle of so many larger wonderful markets and having the option of airports and big cities as a plus for tourism. And, of course, there is the long list of outdoor activities in the area—The Gorge (featured in the June 2016 issue of Capital at Play)—kayaking, tubing, hiking, fishing, and golf.
“People are amazed at how beautiful and pristine the area is,” says Wiener. “That’s our diamond in the rough—there are so many facets. Green spaces are really important to us in Polk County and in the foothills.”
The Tryon Grape
Wineries are a gateway into the area for many visitors. They play such an important role in the local economy that one business, Limo Zen, offers Tryon Wine Tours to encourage visitors to travel safely from winery to winery. Agri-Tourism is gaining ground in Polk County through its five active wineries— Overmountain Vineyards, Parker-Binns Vineyard, Mountain Brook Vineyards, Green Creek Winery, Russian Chapel Hills Winery—and multiple vineyards that support the growing North Carolina wine industry. (Mountain Brook was discussed in the September 2015 issue of Capital at Play—and Russian Chapel Hills in September 2016.)
Wiener works in the tasting room of Over Mountain Vineyards and has a good feel of where tourists are from.
“Tourists come from all over,” says Wiener. “At the winery—Upstate Greenville/Spartanburg, Charlotte, Asheville, Charleston, Atlanta, Columbia, a few from Tennessee. A lot of weekenders. What I love is that all our wineries are completely different. There is often a predetermined thought that you are in the South and wines are going to be sweet and simple, and when they get the complexities that stand up to wines around the world they are amazed.”
Mountain Brook Vineyards share with their guests the history of the Tryon grape that dates to the 1800s: “In the 1860s, Jacque Alexus Lemort was brought over from France by George Washington Biltmore to the Biltmore Estate where viticulture proved unsuccessful. By 1865, Lemort had made his way to the Tryon Foothills and discovered that with the more temperate climate, good drainage and better air circulation, grapes would thrive… Starting in the 1890’s, the ‘Tryon Grape’ was sold to passengers on trains that came through the Tryon Depot. Between the months of July and August, “Tryon Grapes, Tryon Grapes, Tryon Grapes” was a cry that was echoed around the railway station as trains passed through.”
In addition to the wineries, Winding Creek Brewery has opened in Columbus, and The Tryon Back Door Distillery and Gallery is the first legal distillery in Polk County. It produces bourbon and moonshine. A brewery is on the wish list for many in Tryon and something that the TDDA’s Carpenter is actively recruiting to join the downtown scene.
Patrons of the Arts
Residents are quick to mention the arts community as an advantage of living in Polk County. It is a key reason many move to the area and others visit. The history of the arts goes back to the 1880s, when the railroad brought writers to the area and a library and literary society were formed. Years later, artists came to the area fleeing Europe during World War I.
“Historically, the writers, musicians, actors, and visual artists who have chosen to make their home here do so because of the unwavering support of local residents appreciative of the ways in which the arts enrich their lives and bring a unique quality to the region,” says Michelle Fleming, marketing manager for the Tryon Fine Arts Center (TFAC; TryonArts.org). She explains that this legacy lives on in the number of people continually drawn to the area to find and express their unique voice, and to spend their time and energy doing what they have always wanted to do, knowing they will find the encouragement and acceptance they deserve.
“This rarefied atmosphere gives both visitor and artist alike the best of big-city opportunities in the friendliest of small-town settings,” says Fleming. “Historic luminaries such as the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, poet Sidney Lanier, portraitist George Aid, actor William Gillette, and musician/singer Nina Simone have found inspiration in Tryon.”
The TFAC has long played a key role in the area’s arts community. It was founded in 1969 as a performing arts venue and umbrella organization for many local arts groups, thanks to original patron, Violet Erskine Parish-Watson, who left $25,000 (approximately $200,000 in today’s money) provided her gift would be matched within one year. She further stipulated that the gift could not be matched by one large gift, but must be matched through “public subscription on a broad scale,” which she defined as at least 100 gifts.
TFAC has hosted high quality performing arts events, visual arts and historical exhibits, independent films, arts education programming, and community events. They are funded through grants, including those from The Polk County Community Foundation and North Carolina Arts Councils; fundraising that includes donations and business sponsorships, an endowment fund, and revenue from programming.
“Community members will attend a gallery opening for an unknown artist, a play they’re unfamiliar with, or a concert outside their usual genre just to support TFAC,” says Fleming. “Tryon residents seem to value art for art’s sake, and I think it shows in the level of support we receive. The region is filled with true patrons of the arts.”
The Tryon International Film Festival (TryonInternationalFilmFestival.com; see our article on film societies in this issue) and the Tryon Little Theater (Tltinfo.org), among many others, also add to the vibrancy of the local art scene.
Polk County is poised to move into the future continuing to offer a blend of what locals want and tourists yearn to find. The uniqueness comes from the residents, the natural beauty, and the many facets that make it a wonderful place to live and a special place to visit.
“The greatest challenge for Polk County, and its constituent municipalities, in my opinion, is to make adequate preparations for future growth while preserving our rural quality of life,” says Tryon Mayor Pro Tem Armbrust. “It is a balancing act no doubt, but one that can, I believe, be accomplished with proactive, forward-thinking, community-building dialogues.”
Tryon Town Manager Ollis sums it up well when he says, “It’s the best of both worlds.”
Special thanks to Kelly Marshall for her input on this story. Also to the Polk County Office of Economic Development for sharing statistics and data.
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AREA EVENTS & FESTIVALS
71st Annual Tryon Block House Races
The historic steeplechase of the Tryon Riding & Hunt Club
April 22-23, 2017
Tryon Arts & Crafts School Spring Festival
May 20, 2017
Saluda Arts Festival
Coon Dog Day Festival
October 28-30, 2017
Tryon International Film Festival
Early November 2017
Annual Tryon Beer Fest
Additional note: Tryon’s annual Blue Ridge BBQ & Music Festival 2017, which would have been in its 24th year, has been canceled, according to the Carolina Foothills Chamber of Commerce.
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