Reallocation of Visit Big Sky funding for visitor center approved

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – At a meeting of the Big Sky Resort Area District resort tax board April 9, Operations Manager Whitney Brunner estimated that $7,690,505 will be available for the 2019 appropriations cycle, an increase of nearly $200,000 from last year.

Candace Carr Strauss, CEO of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, approached the board on behalf of Visit Big Sky regarding the uncertain future of the corner parcel at Highway 191 and Lone Mountain Trail, where the visitor center is currently located.

Strauss has persistently lobbied for assistance to acquire the land-which is newly under contract with an undisclosed buyer-billing it as prime marketing real estate for the community.

“That [corner] is the gateway to our community,” Strauss said. “It’s Big Sky’s front door.”

Strauss requested permission to reallocate an additional $240,000 to the $160,000 previously reallocated from other marketing efforts for property-related issues.

Board Director Jamie Kabisch asked what other projects would suffer if funds were reallocated for this purpose. Strauss said that no other initiatives would be affected because the need for winter marketing was minimal, and funding from state lodging taxes jumped $150,000 from last year.

While the board seemed empathetic to Strauss’ request, a caveat of resort tax funding is that, with rare exception, it has to be used within the one-year cycle, otherwise those funds are returned to the appropriations coffers for the following year.

Applicants can request a rollover of funds not used, but only if they are designated for the same projects described in the original application.

Strauss offered another idea: to let their nonprofit partner the Big Sky Gateway Foundation hold onto the funds until they could be used.

The board approved the new request, bringing the total funds reallocated for land concerns to $400,000, but it has to remain in the pockets of Visit Big Sky and it was left undetermined if those funds, if not used by the end of June, would qualify for a rollover.

Big Sky Fire Department Chief William Farhat was up next to discuss a draft of a non-binding agreement that would give the BSFD additional security in long-term funding.

“[It is my understanding that] this board really saw the fire department needing a base amount for their budget,” said BSRAD legal counsel Betsy Griffing. “Basically this is a letter of intent that states that [the board] won’t decrease the previous year’s funding without good financial cause-so you still have an out.”

Although Kabisch said that this seemed like “just another piece of paper,” Farhat appeared comforted by the agreement, which factored in an annual increase in resort tax funding by 3 percent.

“It’s a step toward a goal,” Farhat said. “For me it provides a basis to create a budget every year-I recognize that the next board might have an issue with it and I’d have to make a case to preserve that funding.”

By striking the word “financial” from the “good cause” stipulation for backing out of the handshake deal, the motion passed.

Finally, Kristin Gardner, executive director of Gallatin River Task Force, gave a summary of the Big Sky Area Sustainable Watershed Stewardship Plan, an outcome of the Sustainable Water Solutions Forum process.

The three-pronged plan focuses on the ecological health of the Gallatin and Madison rivers, water supply and conservation, and wastewater use, all of which are quickly being recognized as among Big Sky’s most pressing issues.

“How we are going to implement it all is the big question,” Gardner said, which includes determining GRTF’s role in that process. Gardner mentioned the formation of subcommittees, and possibly bringing on the facilitator of the Water Solutions Forum, Karen Filipovich, to coordinate planned action steps.

“I’m really excited for this to come to fruition,” Gardner said. “It’s ambitious but I like challenges and I’m excited to make this happen.”

The complete Big Sky Watershed Stewardship plan can be found at gallatinrivertaskforce.org. The next meeting of the Big Sky Resort Area District tax board will be an appropriations Q&A session for applicants on Monday, June 4, at 1 p.m. at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center.