County commissioners weigh TEDD pros and cons, talk infrastructure needs

By Amanda Eggert EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – Discussion at a public meeting between Gallatin and Madison county commissioners on Oct. 27 focused on infrastructure needs that could help Big Sky diversify its economic base and become more of a year-round community.

Kevin Germain, a member of Big Sky Resort Area District tax board who’s been active on infrastructure and housing issues, said one tool to add value-added industries in Big Sky and address infrastructure deficiencies is a Targeted Economic Development District, or TEDD, which would fund local infrastructure development by leveraging money raised by increases in property tax values.

“[With a TEDD], all the taxes that are paid now would continue to be paid and the objective is to create an environment where we can bring in new tax dollars [to] finance the very necessary public infrastructure,” said Rob Gilmore, Executive Director of the Northern Rocky Mountain Economic Development District.

Although the targeted industries have not been nailed down yet, Germain and Britt Ide, the interim Executive Director of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, have zeroed in on two infrastructure development projects: expanding sewer access to Gallatin Canyon and increasing access to affordable high-speed broadband.

Approximately 40 residents of Madison and Gallatin counties and the three commissioners from each county attended the meeting.

Germain said Big Sky residents pay $70 per month for 6 megabits-per-second of bandwidth and the statewide average is $70 per month for 20 megabits per second. “Community-wide, we have really slow speeds and we’re paying a lot of money for it,” Germain said.

Gilmore said in order to attract telecommuters—a target market that’s been identified for the TEDD—Big Sky will need increased bandwidth, and that would involve a partnership with 3 Rivers Communications and the business community.

Don Serido, Marketing Manager of 3 Rivers Communications, Big Sky’s provider, confirmed Germain’s figures and added that higher download speeds are available at higher prices. Customers can pay for 20 megabits per second of bandwidth for $150 and 50 megabits per second for $400.

Serido said 3 Rivers is planning to increase the download speeds for residential users in the near future and the company regularly expands its fiber infrastructure to Big Sky homes. When asked about large-scale broadband expansion to draw telecommuters and other tech-dependent industries to the area, Serido said, “I don’t think our infrastructure is holding anything like that back.”

Commissioner Skinner said he thought the purpose of the TEDD was to address affordable housing and he’s concerned that it’s going in a different direction now.

“There’s an opinion we have that says you can use TEDD dollars for housing if it’s for the industry you’re attracting,” Germain said. He added that he’s still working on a legislative effort to enable Big Sky to vote up or down on a 1 percent Resort Tax increase that would collect funds designated for affordable housing.

Ide said increasing sewer capacity could have positive impacts for both affordable housing and industry.

“Don’t get wrapped around the axel thinking you are unique with [workforce housing],” said Gallatin County commissioner Don Seifert. “When you look anywhere in Gallatin County there’s a workforce housing issue.”

Seifert said he supports what Big Sky is trying to accomplish with the TEDD, he’s just anxious to see what the final product will look like. There will be hearings and resolutions on the matter before commissioners from both counties put it to a vote.

Ralph Walton, a consultant with CedarHouse Partners, has prepared a draft report on the impacts of a TEDD. A report should be ready for the commissioners’ review by the end of the first quarter, according to Ide.

“Why not put businesses where you have the infrastructure, where you have the high-speed [Internet] already?” asked Skinner who, along with Gallatin County Commissioner Steve White, questioned the merit of paying for infrastructure development in Big Sky.

“I think the county commissioners are understandably concerned that others in their county are maybe opposed to [investment in Big Sky],” said Ide in a post-meeting interview. “The neat thing about this project is we’re paying for the growth ourselves.”

Ide added that any economic growth in Big Sky will be a boon to county coffers because it would increase tax bases.

The chamber is planning to use the Big Sky Resort Area District boundaries, according to Ide. Two districts would have to be created, one in Gallatin County and one in Madison County.

Even though this project dates back to 2014, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Gilmore said it’s been a grass roots effort and those working on it—notably the Chamber of Commerce—would appreciate community feedback on the initiative.

Last year the project received $26,250 in state funding from the Montana Department of Commerce to supplement $25,000 in private funding and a $45,000 reallocation of resort tax funds granted to the chamber in 2014. The funding helped cover attorney and consulting fees, mapping, a third-party economic impact study, and an infrastructure deficiency report.