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Big Sky’s economy of events

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Area leaders discuss successes and shortcomings

By Bay Stephens EBS STAFF WRITER

BIG SKY – On a scale of 1-10, several major players on the events scene in Big Sky rank events a 10, or of utmost importance. Others agree they are significant but add that timing and the right kinds of events are where the goose lays its golden egg.

From concerts to conferences, events help drive the local economy alongside the area’s outdoor recreation, benefiting small businesses as well as locals and visitors. These local events garner resort tax, influence the time of year people visit, and create an opportunity for the area’s private club members and local community to connect.

Economic impact studies reveal that events organized by the Arts Council of Big Sky—such as the Thursday night Music in the Mountains during the summer—and the Outlaw Partners-organized Big Sky Professional Bull Riders Tour event in July spur an influx of millions of dollars to the Gallatin County economy.

In 2017, these events resulted in a combined $6.3 million dollars in economic impact according studies conducted by Circle Analytics of Bozeman. When an extra day of bull riding was added to PBR in 2018, it sent an additional $800,000 spinning through Big Sky’s economy.

Many businesses see these impacts. Rhinestone Cowgirl owner Amy Langmaid said her sales increase noticeably due to large events in Town Center.

“[PBR] brings tons of people to town,” Langmaid said. “Obviously, my store is called Rhinestone Cowgirl, so people are coming in to look for Western gear.” The Arts Council’s Fourth of July Concert was another event that boosted sales, she noted.

The Big Sky Farmers Market, held on Wednesday afternoons throughout the summer, allows locals and visitors to mingle. OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO

For groceries like The Hungry Moose Market and Deli, weekly events are beneficial along with larger ones.

“The ever-increasing [number of] events in Big Sky is always good for local businesses,” said Hungry Moose founder Jackie Robin, who is especially a fan of enriching arts events Big Sky sees thanks to the work of John Zirkle of Warren Miller Performing Arts Center and Brian Hurlbut, executive director of the Arts Council. “The more cool the things we do, the better for our local community,” Robin added.

Nonprofits heavily rely on events, many of which act as important fundraisers for the organizations that fill the gaps a town government would otherwise occupy in Big Sky. Events also offer a platform of giving to these organizations: In 2017, the Gallatin River Task Force received $10,500 from the PBR Calcutta auction, according to the economic impact study.

Tim Drain, General Manager of Natural Retreats Big Sky, has seen certain events heavily influence when second homeowners choose to occupy their properties, and added that he’s beginning to see weekend bookings tied to concerts such as Moonlight MusicFest.

Public events also seem to offer an opportunity to bring neighbors together, according to Brandon Bang, director of member services for the Yellowstone Club.

“I actually think events, and stuff like PBR, are one of the best ways that YC members can join the community and interact with the rest of the community and be a part of Big Sky,” Bang said. “[Events are] a great chance for them to get to know people and meet folks here.… It’s integrating them into the community.”

An events discussion

To delve into what events mean to the Big Sky community, EBS gathered some of the area’s key players for a roundtable discussion on March 7. Included in the discussion were Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky CEO Candace Carr Straus, Outlaw Partners CEO Eric Ladd (publisher of EBS), Lone Mountain Land Company Vice President of Planning and Development Bayard Dominick, Love Street Media owner Erik Morrison, and Big Sky Resort Public Relations Manager Stacie Mesuda.

“To me, it’s as much about bringing our community together as it is about creating an event for outsiders,” Dominick said. “The more our community … gathers together, it’ll be a place that visitors want to visit.”

Although events serve as a boon to the area’s economy, they prove challenging to pull off in the young and unincorporated Big Sky for a number of reasons.

Infrastructure lags behind the area’s growth and recent “discovery” by the rest of the world. Lodging and parking are limited and traffic painfully slow during rush hours. Public transit is underfunded to the point where Lone Mountain Land Company chartered all available buses in the area to transport visitors to and from last year’s Moonlight MusicFest, according to Bayard Dominick.

Additionally, scarce land contributes to limited venue options, which are either small indoor spaces or at the mercy of the weather. Inadequate facilities were a shared frustration among those at the table.

“We’ve outgrown everything we’ve created,” Ladd said, adding that he’d like to see a permanent arena and events barn to host world class events. Ladd pointed to Ketchum, Idaho and Jackson Hole, Wyoming as models with large spaces for events that Big Sky could replicate.

Scant housing—also a land-related issue—restricts the size and quality of events, as well, resulting in a small, year-round population living in Big Sky that can support events.

“Seventy percent of our homeowners are second homeowners, spending one to two weeks here a year,” Carr Strauss said.

The housing shortage contributes to the hurdle staffing any event too, Carr Strauss pointed out, a challenge for big events and a serious crux for nonprofit-run events.

When it comes to funding events, both Ladd and Brian Hurlbut, executive director of the Arts Council of Big Sky who could not attend the roundtable but was interviewed before the discussion, agreed that resort tax should play a role considering events induce people to spend money that filters back into resort tax, similar to investing in stock.

Big Sky’s 3-percent resort tax on designated “luxury” goods, which aims to help the small local population shoulder the infrastructural impact of tourists, also benefits from the local revenue events generate, according to Hurlbut.

“Events can bring a large number of people into town, which translates into people spending money at the hotels and the restaurants, and that in turn gets pumped back into resort tax, so it’s a circular thing,” he said.

Erik Morrison, who runs Town Center events such as the Big Sky Farmers Market, said a mechanism is necessary to track how funds spent on events benefit the community to justify whether resort tax pays in.

“We just need to be able to show [return on investment] of our efforts, the money we’re putting into these events, [and] how they come back to the community,” Morrison said.

No mechanism currently tracks how much resort tax an event spurs, but the Circle Analytics economic impact studies estimated that, between the Arts Council’s various 2017 events and the 2017 and 2018 PBRs, $718,000 in taxes were collected at the county level.

Any claims by the roundtable participants on how the tax ought to be spent were illegitimate , Carr Strauss said, adding that the Big Sky Resort Area District’s strategic visioning process called “Our Big Sky” being carried out by Logan Simpson through the end of this year will reveal the priorities for spending Big Sky’s limited resort tax.

“We have to make due, and I think to Eric [Ladd’s] point of being entrepreneurial, that’s how we’ve been successful to this point,” Carr Strauss said. “We’ve bootstrapped a lot of things and made it happen because we willed it so, but again if we want to become world class and be grand and have larger-scale events, we need to be more thoughtful.”

Carr Strauss said more of Big Sky’s events ought to prompt visitors to leave something behind economically, rather than drawing drive-in crowds that leave without contributing to the local economy.

She estimated that large business conference meetings, of which only Big Sky Resort is in the market, offer up to five fold the local spending than consumer events like concerts because attendees often stay in the area for nearly a week and bring family along to recreate outside of meeting times.

Ensuring the locals aren’t left behind as community events grow was a point of agreement between roundtable attendees, and also occupies the minds of local business owners.

“I think it’s really important for Big Sky to continue developing a community spirit,” said Rhinestone Cowgirl’s Langmaid. “I like that locals are able to do these activities and they’re not just for visitors, and I think that that’s a really important part … I like the PBR, but it’s getting harder and harder for Big Sky people to participate in.”

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