By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – Approximately 30 individuals gathered at Big Sky’s Lone Peak Cinema on Jan. 31, for a live broadcast of the 43rd annual Economic Outlook Seminar presented by University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

The broadcast was the first of its kind in Big Sky, brought to the community by the Chamber of Commerce and live streamed from the presentation in Bozeman, one of nine stops throughout the state this winter.

Bryce Ward, BBER associate director, opened the seminar with a discussion of higher education, noting the economic boons and personal benefits that arise with advanced learning. “The reason why we care about universities fundamentally is because they exist to increase the capacity of the economy,” Ward said, adding that they do that in two ways. “They generate new ideas via research and they educate students. … The benefits of higher education accrue, they spill out, across the whole region.”

To set the stage for industry-specific analysis, BBER Director Patrick Barkey discussed the state and national economic outlooks, describing it as a quietly improving economy. “For the first time in 10 years, there is no major [global] economy in recession today,” he added. Of Montana’s economy, Barkey said job growth continued in 2017, however government revenue remains relatively stagnant.

Following the general report on the economy, specialists of their respective industries provided outlooks for individual sectors of the economy.

With record skier numbers last winter at Whitefish Mountain Resort, Big Sky Resort and Bridger Bowl Ski Area, steady increases in visitation at Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, and proximity to the path of totality during the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse, 2017 was a year of aberrations for the tourism industry in western Montana, according to Norma Nickerson, director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at UM.

“From a tourism point of view, Montana is about our natural resources,” she said. “We don’t have Disney Lands, we don’t have big operas and Broadway plays. That’s not what were about and without our natural resources we wouldn’t have the visitation and the tourism that we do.”

Nickerson added that the proposed increase in national park entrance fees from about $30 up to $70 at both Yellowstone and Glacier would likely result in a decrease in visitation by almost 3 percent, and fewer dollars would be spent in gateway communities like Big Sky.

Specific to the real estate market, BBER Director of Forecasting Brandon Bridge projected a strong market in 2018, while affordability will continue to worsen as housing prices continue to rapidly increase and median household income increases at a much slower rate. Housing risk is growing with underwater mortgages and rising forms of debt (especially student debt), but is not yet a concern, Bridge added.

Following industry outlooks, Barkey returned to the stage to discuss the Gallatin economy. Major economic drivers on the local level include Montana State University and the state government contributing 26 percent, professional and technological services at 16 percent, nonresident travel at 15 percent and manufacturing at 14 percent, he said. Accommodations and food and health care are markets that continue to boom, while construction has only seen a 5 percent increase.

“Even though construction is really huge here right now, it’s always been huge in Bozeman,” Barkey said. “In fact, if you go back to 2007, proportionately speaking, it’s not really that much bigger than it was 10 years ago … it tells you more about how hot things were here 10 years ago.”

Going in to 2018, Barkey said, it’s pretty much more of the same in terms of rapid growth. “It’s really a broad-based, strong economic cycle were on here in Gallatin County,” he said. “Basically, the problem in Gallatin County is growth … we really don’t see anything slowing the train down.”

Continuing the look at the local economy, Bozeman City Manager Andrea Surratt discussed the importance of supported growth for strong economic development. She mentioned the city’s work in developing a new strategic plan and vision for the community that includes an engaged community, investments in infrastructure and support for the workforce.

“If you’re not growing, you’re dying,” Surratt said. “Bozeman is a quality of life economy.”

Montana University System Regent Vice-Chair Robert Nystuen closed the seminar with a keynote address on the future of higher education in the state. Nystuen mentioned challenges impacting higher education, which include uneven enrollment across the state, decreased funding and increasing student debt.

During a break in the broadcast, Big Sky Chamber of Commerce CEO Candace Carr Strauss told EBS that she hopes the Big Sky community can use the seminar as a tool to for planning and developing relationships within their businesses. Strauss attended the Bozeman seminar when she was director of development for the Museum of the Rockies and said it was a great way to understand the economic environment and how that affects business partnerships.

In the future, Strauss said she hopes to bring Barkey to Big Sky to speak on the economy live. “I think our economy doesn’t receive enough visibility,” she said. “It’s about partnerships and synergies between communities.”