How did these issues get missed?

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

This is the second installment in a three-part series on housing and development in the Big Sky area. Read the next article on the potential solutions in the Feb. 7 issue of EBS. To read the first article in this series, click here.

BIG SKY – When snowboard instructor Tim Dietz returned for his third season at Big Sky Resort, he thought he’d have a place to rest his head. But when an Alpenglow condo deal fell through after the pipes burst, his options were limited.

“I was couch surfing for a while,” said Dietz, 24. “[The resort] was trying to send me to [employee housing in] West Yellowstone, but they couldn’t guarantee that the shuttle would get me to work on time.”

So he turned to Craigslist, but after weeks of scouring the classified ad website for rental listings, he lost patience. Dietz, who hails from Richmond, Va., posted his own Craigslist ad, reading, “$150 Igloo Community (Pets welcome).”

“I got an astounding number of responses,” he said. “People were equally as frustrated as I was. They were like, ‘Yeah this is bogus.’”

The resort has since given him a room at the Huntley Lodge, and Dietz says he feels lucky. He knows others don’t have it as good.

Housing is a serious issue throughout the Big Sky community, where both rental and purchase prices are inflated, inventory is limited, and the population is growing.

This is not a new problem, but that doesn’t take away the sting many people in the area feel today.

“It was the same in ’95,” said Ron Edwards, General Manager at the Big Sky Water and Sewer District. “I remember going to a realtor, trying to find somewhere [to live] back then. Same deal.”

So Edwards, 55, moved to Four Corners and has lived there ever since, commuting 45 minutes four days a week to his office in the Big Sky Meadow Village.

Both the well water and sewer treatment systems in Big Sky are able to accommodate growth for the next 15-20 years, according to Edwards; but the residential and affordable housing coin is still being flipped, and it’s landing on the same side it has for decades: face down.

“Housekeepers, [servers], bartenders… These employees are on the frontline,” said Sheila Chapman, Big Sky Resort’s Public Relations Manager. “We all know they’re not making $60,000 a year. From [Horse of a Different Color] to the Hungry Moose to Big Sky Resort’s management team, we have to bring affordable housing to the people who are going to live, work and raise their families here.”

On Dec. 18, two rental properties in Big Sky were available on Craigslist. The cheapest was a two-bedroom condo for $1,650 per month.

Scrambling to keep up

Big Sky Resort announced its merger with Moonlight Basin on Oct.1, creating what is now quite literally the biggest skiing in America. The acquisition of Moonlight added 1,900 acres of skiable terrain, bringing the massive resort to 5,750 total acres.

With this merger came a demand for labor, from ski lift operators to patrollers to dining staff and hotel management – but this, too, is nothing new. The increase in the Big Sky Resort labor market happens every winter when seasonal employees bring the resort’s roster up from 200 to around 1,500.

Dax Schieffer, Big Sky Resort’s Director of Human Resources, has been here for 17 years, working in lodging, accounting, marketing and HR. The resort accommodates staff as best it can, Schieffer says, housing 350 in Big Sky – 200 in the resort’s Mountain Lodge – and chartering Karst Stage busses to transport others to West Yellowstone, an hour south.

According to Peter Donau, general manager for Delaware North in Bozeman, the resort contacted the hospitality management company for the lodging availability it had at the Madison Apartments and Ambassador Apartments in West. Big Sky Resort reserved approximately 80 beds for the season, he said.

The lodging dynamic is different this season than in years past, Schieffer says. “Normally [employees] show up, live [in resort housing] for a couple weeks, meet friends and rent a place together. This winter, they moved in, went out to find places in the community, and they couldn’t find anything.

“We’re working our tails off to find as many solutions as we can,” Schieffer added. “This includes calling neighboring communities, land owners, developers and businesses for ideas.”

Big Sky Resort isn’t the only entity facing an uphill housing battle for the employees it relies on.

The Yellowstone Club increases its workforce to approximately 650 employees each winter – up from its base of 200 full-time employees. Of these winter workers, 60-70 percent commute from Bozeman and Belgrade, according to Bill Collins, Yellowstone Club’s vice president and director of sales.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the issue that happened so quickly,” Collins said. “There needs to be housing for seasonal employees, and there needs to be housing for the young family that moves to Big Sky looking to purchase their first home.”

A two-pronged issue

As the economy has recovered in the last two years, Big Sky’s rental and low- to moderate-level inventory has dropped off.

One issue compounding the shortage, Schieffer says, is that many second homeowners who rented their properties during the recession aren’t feeling the crunch now, and have pulled their homes from the rental pool.

“It’s a very tight market,” said Markus Kirchmayr, owner of Alpine Property Management in Big Sky, which deals with vacation rentals, homeowner association management and home caretaking. “Really, there’s nothing available at all.”

Kirchmayr cites two reasons for the lack of rental housing: first, the market has lost a large number of long-term rentals to second homebuyers; and second, he thinks there are simply more people in town.

“I’m telling people to go on Craigslist and find a roommate, or move to Bozeman,” he said. “If you have a dog, it’s a very big issue.”

That’s a lesson Mallory May learned the hard way when she moved to Big Sky from Jackson, Miss. last April to work as a reservationist at Lone Mountain Ranch. After renting a one-room apartment until it was sold in September, the 26-year-old began searching for housing.

“It was stressful knowing that I just didn’t have any options,” said May, who has a 25-pound mutt named Brodie. “I definitely put in a lot of work and was very persistent. I found a lot of rental properties in Big Sky, they just weren’t available.”

LMR employs between 50 and 60 seasonal workers each winter, and while it has ample on-site lodging, not everyone wants to stay there.

“It’s kind of like camp,” said PJ Wirchansky, LMR’s director of sales and marketing. “In the five years I lived on site, most of the time I loved it. [Rent] came right out of my check, I had a roof over my head and utilities were included.”

LMR housed May until she found an apartment in the new building at 32 Town Center Ave., next to Ousel and Spur Pizza in the Town Center. “I looked for housing for several months [and] feel very fortunate to have found it,” she said.

Not every housing sector in Big Sky has these issues. High-end residential construction is booming, exemplified by the current rate of development in the Yellowstone Club.

“There are 70-80 homes currently under construction here,” said Mike Ducuennois, the club’s Vice President of Development.

Ducuennois – also a member of a public committee performing a housing analysis for the Big Sky area – recognizes the greater community’s housing problem. He calls it a “two-pronged issue,” referring to affordable housing and employee housing, and says the community needs to focus on both to be sustainable.

While the Yellowstone Club does not provide employee housing, it helps staff in other ways, Ducuennois says, pointing out the club’s support of the Skyline Bus system, which runs from Bozeman to Big Sky, and throughout the Big Sky area.

“We are currently one of the largest contributors to the [Skyline] bussing program, [providing] about $150,000 a year in subsidies,” said Ducuennois, who lives in Bozeman with his wife and two children.

He noted that employee surveys have shown that many Yellowstone Club employees prefer to live in the Bozeman area.

“Big Sky in the last 10 years has grown leaps and bounds with the school, grocery store and hospital but there’s still a gap,” he said, indicating Bozeman’s cheaper commodities and greater number of cultural activities.

Plenty of Big Sky-area workers make the hour-long commute from Bozeman, but not 23-year-old Danny Koningisor, a Big Sky Resort ticket checker who chose to live locally – even if it meant sleeping in a closet.

After spending last summer in New Zealand, Koningisor contacted the resort when he returned stateside in November.

“They told me they’d love to have me, but that they were at 135 percent capacity for housing, and it was up to me to find a place,” Koningisor said. He arrived in Big Sky Dec. 3.

“When I first got here, I was sleeping in a friend’s closet in [Westfork] above Milkies,” said Koningisor, who holds a B.S. in political science from the University of Michigan.

Koningisor has since upgraded his digs and now rents a pantry for $200 a month in a condo near the resort. “The door doesn’t open completely, and it’s pretty tight, but I have [access to] a full kitchen,” he said.

Hope on the horizon

The Big Sky Resort Tax Board in June 2013 awarded the local chamber of commerce $80,000 to hire a group to perform a housing development plan.

In October, the chamber announced the Denver-based consulting firm Economic and Planning Systems would perform the area housing analysis. The group visited Big Sky for planning meetings in November, and plans to complete the study in April 2014.

Bill Collins feels the recent business collaborations – in which Yellowstone Club owner CrossHarbor Capital Partners acquired the Club at Spanish Peaks and partnered with Boyne Resorts to purchase Moonlight Basin – will play a major role to bring the larger community together.

“There wasn’t a unified leadership in the market [before these deals],” Collins said. “[The groups] weren’t aligned and couldn’t get together and make the best decisions for the community. Now, it’s good to have people all on the same team.”

That team now awaits the findings of Economic and Planning Systems alongside the rest of the Big Sky. The larger community is anxious to see the housing study results, says Chapman, who moved to Big Sky from Whitefish on May 15.

“Two waves have come together,” she said. “The wave of progress, and the receding wave of the recession. And caught in the middle is housing.”