Consultants present rec center plan

By Joseph T. O’Connor Explore Big Sky Senior Editor

BIG SKY – Three community groups presented plans for the future during the Big Sky Resort Tax Board’s town hall meeting held on March 13 in the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center. This was the board’s second public meeting in 2014.

The RTB gave Isaac Sports Group/USAquatics, the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky each 15 minutes to present their various outlines for a recreation center, more affordable area housing, and future marketing plans, respectively.

ISG and USAquatics, the consultants hired by the Big Sky Community Corp. to perform a recreation center feasibility study, opened the meeting with ISG President Stuart Isaac quickly going over a PowerPoint presentation. BSCC was awarded $50,000 in resort tax funding to perform the study.

“Even with a population base of 2,400 and a seasonal base of [approximately] 10,000, with these amenities, we feel this is a very viable facility,” said Isaac, indicating that the proposed rec center – comprised of an aquatics center including a field house, as well as an events arena for ice hockey and rodeos – would cost at least $29.6 million, if Big Sky builds the center as ISG and USAquatics suggest.

For the past nine months, the rec center consultants have been in and out of Big Sky, talking to community members and leaders, researching similar communities, and looking at numbers from the Big Sky medical center research, according to BSCC Executive Director Jessie Wiese.

“It’s [the consultants’] best guess cost estimation based on what information they’ve been given and what they’ve researched to date,” Wiese said in a later interview. “If something happens along the way that shows the events center doesn’t need to be that big, it could change.”

It’s unclear where the funding for the rec center would come from, and according to Wiese, it could be in the form of donations from Big Sky organizations or individuals. BSCC is currently waiting for the consultants’ final report, which should be completed by April 1.

As it stands now, the proposed aquatics center would have a 25-yard, eight-lane pool, as well as a water park with slides, an aquatic climbing wall, and space for aquatherapy, swim lessons and training.

An adjacent recreation and fitness center in the same building would have a multi-purpose sport floor for basketball, soccer, baseball and tennis, and also an elevated running track, a climbing wall, a weight room and an aerobics and dance studio.

An 18,000-square-foot events center, proposed as a separate facility, could hold up to 2,500 spectators and would host an ice rink in winter and a rodeo/events area in summer.

Most important, according to both ISG/USAquatics and BSCC, will be bringing in an experienced group to handle the project down the road. “This facility will make it or not based on a good professional management team,” Isaac said.

BSCC is currently heading up the project, and may or may not continue to manage it.

“These types of facilities are typically led by park districts,” Wiese said. “In this situation it would make sense for BSCC or a new nonprofit formed to manage it. [Isaac] thinks it makes sense for one group to see the project from start to finish.”

The Big Sky Park District, an agency governed by both Gallatin and Madison counties, was formed in 2011 to complement the nonprofit BSCC. A park district by definition can tax, though when Big Sky’s district was formed, an inter-local agreement between the counties dictated that it is a non-taxing district, Wiese added.

The park district could eventually take on the management of the recreation facility by applying for nonprofit status. In the meantime, BSCC met on March 21, after EBS went to press, to determine next steps, which could include hiring a fourth BSCC employee to manage the project.

Once the initial funding exists for the rec center, Isaac said the facility could pay for itself through membership collaborations with homeowners associations, hotels and area resorts.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” Isaac answered during the Q-and-A session that followed his presentation. “We’ve seen these [facilities] work, and tried to be very conservative in [our approach], and are very confident in these numbers.”

According to ISG and USAquatics research, individuals would not pay more than $50 per month for memberships and families around $90 per month.

“I’ve seen them through the whole process, and I feel pretty good about it,” Wiese said. “They used really conservative numbers.”

Housing development plan update

Kitty Clemens, Executive Director for the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, took the stage next, giving an update on the housing development plan being performed by Denver, Colo.-based consultants Economics and Planning Systems.

The chamber hired EPS for $80,000 in resort tax dollars last October to complete an area housing study.

The consultancy was not present at the town hall meeting, but will return at the end of April with a draft report, a housing and financing plan, and implementation steps, Clemens said.

EPS has conducted similar studies in Aspen, Vail and Telluride, Colo., as well as Teton County, Wyo. and Park City, Utah.

The initial housing report said the area median income in Big Sky is $58,369. Based on that income, an affordable home was $181,000. The average cost of a single-family home was $738,000 in 2013.

Preliminary options, according to the report, vary depending on whether Big Sky remains unincorporated, expands its resort tax district, or implements some sort of self-governing structure.

With no change in governance, EPS suggested in its preliminary report that Big Sky could set up a community land trust, which in the Rocky Mountain West have typically begun with $3-$5 million endowments, according to David Schwartz, senior associate at EPS. This structure can also provide tax deductions for charitable donations.

Another existing option is the use of tax increment financing or TIF, which refers to future mill levy taxes that could be used to subsidize current developments or improvements.

If Big Sky were to ask the Montana Legislature to expand the resort tax district authority, a dedicated sales tax structure could be implemented, according to the study. The RTB could designate .5 percent, or approximately $500,000 per year, of its annual take to more affordable housing.

Should Big Sky become incorporated, more options are available, according to the report. An inclusionary housing ordinance could be adopted, which could designate between 20 and 35 percent of new homes built be made affordable to those with lower to middle class incomes.

A commercial linkage strategy is another option under an incorporated government structure. This plan would require those developing new commercial properties in Big Sky to pay fees, often based on square footage, to support more affordable residential options.

“The idea is to make the community livable,” Clemens said.

Visit Big Sky marketing plan

Clemens remained on stage to present the Visit Big Sky marketing campaign, a $450,000 project funded with resort tax dollars, for summer 2014 and winter 2014-2015.

Using billboards, print media, digital media and search engine marketing techniques, VBS this winter saw strong return on its investments. In what Clemens called one of its most successful approaches, VBS purchased four digital billboards in San Francisco, Calif.

San Franciscans sitting in traffic on the Bay Bridge could see the billboards, which read “Our sick day,” “Our down time,” and “Our rush hour,” each depicting various elements of mountain life in southwest Montana.

This season, as of press time, skier visits were up 25 percent over the 2012-2013 ski season at Big Sky Resort, Clemens noted. The digital marketing campaign for this winter season had netted 17.3 million impressions yielding 56,400 clicks through the winter website, she added.

This summer, VBS plans to market extensively through Yellowstone Public Radio, and in Sunset, Audubon and Outside magazines, with the bulk of its efforts again going again to online, digital placement.

The main reason behind having a strong marketing campaign, according to Clemens, is that other resort destinations are working as hard as ever to draw crowds. “The competition isn’t quitting,” she said.