Joint commissioner meeting celebrates Big Sky’s $10M TIGER grant

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – An air of celebration rippled through the April 4 bi-annual meeting of the Madison and Gallatin county commissioners about Big Sky’s receipt of a $10 million TIGER grant announced in March. The grant will fund priority road and transportation projects lobbied for by the Big Sky Community Organization, Big Sky Transportation District and chamber of commerce.

“I don’t think there’s any better example of the power of community and how we can all come together to [reach our goals],” said Big Sky Chamber of Commerce CEO Candace Carr Strauss, echoing her sentiments in the earlier public meeting, which was dedicated to exploring options for a more cohesive governing system for Big Sky.

Ciara Wolfe, executive director of Big Sky Community Organization, listed the projects the grant will fund, including a tunnel under Lone Mountain Trail at Little Coyote Road; a park connector trail along Little Coyote Road; a pedestrian bridge over the West Fork of the Gallatin River; the addition of seven turn lanes on Lone Mountain Trail; additional wildlife- and curve-warning signage; and the purchase of six vans and four motor coaches for Skyline transportation services.

Wolfe said that there would be no grant-related construction this summer due to state-level protocol; and Gallatin County Commissioner Don Seifert added that building would most likely not begin until 2021-2022 at the earliest.

“So there will be some time when it looks like nothing is happening on the ground,” Seifert said, adding that the progress would be happening elsewhere.

Big Sky Transportation District Manager David Kack expressed cautious pleasure that the district would able to increase their fleet of vehicles.

“As great as the news is, it doesn’t mean all the problems go away,” Kack said, noting that the ultimate question is where to locate the funding to operate the new vehicles as frequently as needed to meet the demand.

The commissioners expressed their surprise of the grant award news.

“With jaws dropping we were jumping up and down [when we heard the news],” Gallatin County Commissioner Chairman Steve White said. “I can’t underestimate the incredible outcome of that application … you have six county commissioners who give you great applause for your tenacity.”

Wolfe introduced Joe Gilpin with Alta Planning and Design, who gave an update on the Master Trails Plan being developed for Big Sky.

The study, initiated in June 2017, looked at how Big Sky uses trails for recreation as well as transportation, and will culminate in a five-year strategic plan that focuses on increased trail and destination connectivity, streamlined signage, and a diverse range of trail experiences.

Another update on the plan will be delivered in May or June, and in July or August the draft will be up for public comment; the dual county adoption process is slated for September through November.

Brian Guyer, HRDC community development manager and acting director of the Big Sky Community Housing Trust, gave an insightful breakdown from a housing survey that garnered what he deemed an impressive 1,100 responses from the community.

Guyer reported that there are 1,200 more jobs in Big Sky than there were in 2012, and 977 new housing units. While Guyer said that the number of new units should be able to meet those needs, only 177 of those units were valued at under $1 million.

The study also found that just 30 percent of Big Sky housing is occupied by year-round residents, with the remaining 70 percent either occupied part time or designated as a short-term rental.

Guyer also said there are 4,000 jobs currently in Big Sky, and only 3090 employees, which speaks to how many people have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet.

According to the findings, half of Big Sky’s employees commute here, and 39 percent of them said that they would prefer to live in Big Sky. Twenty-six percent of survey respondents said that they lost a rental to an owner selling; and another 20 percent lost a rental unit to a short-term conversion. More than 400 rentals have been lost due to one of those reasons in the last five years.

The study concluded that 560 to 650 affordable housing units must be built over the next five to 10 years to address the deficiency and meet the needs of projected growth.

A working group is now striving to come up with a set of short-, medium- and long-term goals, and have an internal deadline of April 30 so the plan can inform their resort tax application. The final report will be released in June.