Highlight growth, housing, transportation

By Tyler Allen EBS Managing Editor

BIG SKY – A joint Gallatin and Madison county commission meeting on Dec. 5, hosted by the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, covered a wide range of topics and initiatives.

The venue was Lone Peak Cinema and one of its theaters was nearly full of community members who joined the county commissioners to hear about current initiatives from Visit Big Sky, the chamber of commerce, Big Sky Resort Area District, the local housing trust, an update on the TIGER infrastructure grant, the Big Sky Transportation District, and NorthWestern Energy’s planned substation.

The morning began at 8:30 a.m. with the chamber’s biannual “Eggs and Issues” forum, which featured Dax Schieffer, the director of Voices of Montana Tourism. Schieffer was live-streamed on the movie screen because he had a conflicting engagement in Whitefish, at the Business of Outdoor Recreation Summit hosted by the Office of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

Schieffer spent nearly 20 years working for Big Sky Resort, finishing his tenure in 2015 as the human resources director. He began his presentation by outlining four components of a healthy tourism economy: attraction, accommodation, access and awareness. An attraction like the skiing or fly-fishing in Big Sky, for example, will move someone to take a vacation here, and accommodation—caring for someone’s needs like a room to stay or the gear they need to enjoy their trip—will keep them coming back.

Transportation is crucial to access a tourist destination, Schieffer said, though he noted that a majority of people still drive to Big Sky. But awareness, he stressed, is the lynchpin of any successful tourism economy. “Without it, it doesn’t matter if you have the top three,” Schieffer said, telling the audience it was a struggle in the early days in Big Sky to make people aware that Montana wasn’t a part of Canada and that residents of the state actually had running water.

He presented a number of slides showcasing the growth of tourism over the last several years, particularly in Gallatin County. Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport now has 30 percent of the airline customers in the state—it overtook Billings in 2013—and Bozeman is leading the state in annual air traffic growth.

In 1987, the state implemented a 4 percent lodging tax, which stabilized tourism-related funding, Schieffer said, and was a big step in the growth of Montana’s burgeoning recreation and visitation industry. In 2017, the state had 12.5 million visitors who spent $3.4 billion, supported 53,000-plus jobs, generated $205 million in state and local taxes, and lowered taxes for each Montana household by almost $500. That data is based on a report published in March 2018 by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research.

In Big Sky, Schieffer said, the bed tax collection experienced a 46-percent increase from 2007 to 2018, and in Gallatin County as a whole, restaurants and bars account for nearly 20 percent of visitor spending, while outfitters and guides—two industries that employ many of the residents in the Big Sky area— account for 14 percent.

Schieffer closed his presentation by noting that the real value of tourism in Montana is the “ladder of success,” which allows more residents to stay and work in the state, himself included, as a native of eastern Montana.

Candace Carr Strauss, the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce executive director, spoke after the live stream and told the audience about JetBlue’s recent announcement of its new nonstop service between Bozeman and Long Beach, California. The Bozeman airport will host a celebration of the new flight on Thursday, Dec. 13 at 3 p.m.

Joint county commission meeting

The event continued with the joint Gallatin and Madison commissioner meeting—Madison County Commissioner Ron Nye arrived later in the session after dealing with a flat tire. Outgoing Gallatin County Commissioner Steve White began the proceedings with a moment of silence for former President George H.W. Bush, who passed away Nov. 30.

Gallatin County commissioners Don Seifert and Joe Skinner were also in attendance, as well as Madison County Commissioner Jim Hart. Commissioner Dan Allhands from Madison County was unable to attend. The commissioners heard about the following initiatives in Big Sky, abbreviated for space:

Visit Big Sky

Candace Carr Strauss presented on Visit Big Sky’s “Imagine Big Sky 2023” initiative, and emphasized that, more than quantity, VBS is focused on the quality of visitors to Big Sky—those that want to return year after year. The strategic priorities are threefold: develop sustainable outdoor recreation experiences, promote the destination to broaden Big Sky’s reputation, and establish VBS as a leader in the tourism industry.

Strauss highlighted Visit Big Sky’s new website as well as the new developments at Big Sky Resort, such as the new Ramcharger 8 chairlift, in addition to the resort’s participation in both the Ikon and Mountain Collective passes, as ways to attract more skier visits. She also highlighted the May 1, 2019 opening of the Wilson Hotel in the heart of Town Center Plaza, and the Montage hotel coming to Spanish Peaks Mountain Club in 2021.

Big Sky Chamber of Commerce

Strauss continued by highlighting the chamber’s “Elevate Big Sky 2023” initiative and said, “If we don’t have a sustainable community our businesses cannot thrive.” She touched on the many projects that the chamber has played an integral part in, including the TIGER grant, the Big Sky Housing Trust, and telecommunication infrastructure improvements. Facilitating local governing and encouraging community infrastructure development are two of the chambers top priorities, she added.

Strauss showed a slide demonstrating how Big Sky is part of the “Greater Gallatin Canyon Ecosystem,” which includes the Bozeman airport, Montana State University and Bozeman, the fastest growing micropolitan area in U.S.

Big Sky Resort Area Tax District

Resort tax board member Steve Johnson opened by saying that with all of the recent area growth, decisions need to be made about the impact of growth here. “There are a lot of moving parts in Big Sky, Johnson said, “let’s get this on the table and face the music.”

Chrissy Gilmore with Logan Simpson, the consulting firm that the resort tax district hired to implement Big Sky’s community strategic plan, took the microphone and gave a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation about what her company is going to be asking of the community going forward. She presented a five-phase plan with their strategy to involve the entire community, and also directed a number of questions at the county commissioners in attendance.

When pressed, the commissioners touched on the things that make Big Sky special. “I love coming over here. It’s almost a cliché but Big Sky is unique,” Hart said. “It’s about to be one of the biggest communities in Madison and Gallatin counties.”

The commissioners also discussed the unusual governance here as an unincorporated community, how the counties have a lot of resources to assist Big Sky’s vision and how important it is to involve part-time residents in this visioning process.

Big Sky Community Housing Trust

Tim Kent, the chair of the community housing trust, extolled the hiring of Laura Seyfang as program director of the Big Sky Community Housing Trust, though she wasn’t available to attend this event. Kent presented slides and said there should be a spectrum of affordable housing in Big Sky. He said that someone in Gallatin County at 80 percent of area median income (AMI) earns approximately $65,000 a year.

Kent said the housing trust is working with potential buyers in the 80 to 120 percent AMI range for the Meadowview property under construction in Big Sky Meadow Village, where 52 condo units are about to begin their vertical construction phase in the second week of December. Currently, 32 qualified applicants have completed their buyer education class and received one-on-one counseling, which is the first step in the process for affordable housing ownership.

TIGER grant

David Kack, with the Big Sky Transportation District and Western Transportation Initiative, opened the presentation about the $10.4 million federal TIGER grant awarded to Big Sky in March for transportation projects along Lone Mountain Trail, including a number of protected turn lanes to prevent rear-end vehicle collisions. Gallatin County will be administering the money, Kack said, and hopes to get grant agreement signed and money flowing soon.

Ciara Wolfe, executive director of the Big Sky Community Organization, said that BSCO recognizes there hasn’t been a grant contract signed, since it’s up to the federal Department of Transportation, but as soon as that contract is finalized they’re prepared to activate the money.

“We’re ready for design and engineering to begin as soon as the grant contract is signed,” she said. Wolfe highlighted data from past traffic studies indicating that 80 percent of westbound traffic on Lone Mountain Trail turns left on Ousel Falls Road, and urged the commissioners to consider solutions to the construction traffic that churns daily up to the Yellowstone Club and Spanish Peaks Mountain Club.

Candace Carr Strauss made a statement at the end of the presentation to inform the community that Montana DOT performed a traffic study on Lone Mountain Trail and subsequently raised the speed limits on portions of the highway, against the chamber’s recommendation to lower them throughout the corridor.

Big Sky Transportation District

Kack opened his presentation about the Skyline bus service by stating they’re beginning their 13th year of service and are soon to hit 2 million riders since being established in 1991. The district is currently circulating a petition to expand the district, since the boundaries were drawn before Big Sky experienced its significant recent growth.

The district needs to get signatures from 20 percent of residents that live in the Big Sky Resort Area District, but do not reside in the current transportation district. They would have to collect all the necessary signatures by Dec. 17 for the May elections, but he said that probably isn’t realistic and that the counties will have to call a special election. This would give the district the authority to put a property tax mill levy on future ballots to help fund transportation services in Big Sky, and between here and Bozeman.

NorthWestern Energy

Eric Austin, the director of the Burton K. Wheeler Center for Public Policy at Montana State University, closed the event describing the community dialogue that NorthWestern Energy had with Big Sky homeowners in finding a site for the proposed energy substation here.

After many public meetings involving diverse stakeholders to find a suitable area for a midmountain energy transfer station, NorthWestern Energy landed on the Rainham site and a design choice to stabilize and accommodate future power demands in Big Sky. NorthWestern is currently working on final construction planning and when the weather breaks, sometime in the spring, site work will begin through most of next summer, he said. Construction will happen during the summer of 2020 with the substation coming on line in late 2020.

Visit the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce’s Facebook page to watch a complete video recording of the event.