Year of the cheetah

By Joseph T. O’Connor Explore Big Sky Senior Editor

On the national and international stage, 2013 was a year of struggle, tragedy, of division and subsequent unity. Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the Philippines; Obamacare survived GOP opposition only to stumble during the rollout; a new Pope ushered in a new era for the Catholic community; George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin; the city of Boston unified after its 117th annual marathon was bombed.

In Big Sky, 2013 was a year of growth, of bouncing back and recovering. It was a year of charting new courses, collaborating and growing as a community, but the work is far from over. The following stories – the top 10 of the year – illustrate these characteristics.

From the merger of Big Sky Resort and Moonlight Basin, a new and massive ski area emerged – the largest in the United States. Simultaneously, high-end residential development came charging back to this unincorporated town, revealing an income disparity that has left the community grasping at ways to support its lower and middle classes.

The Big Sky Fire Department hired five new firefighters and the Big Sky School District has secured funding for a new elementary school; there’s a critical access hospital and a new grocery store being built; the Big Sky PBR won Touring Pro Event of the Year; and a new center for the arts was born, drawing national and international talent.

“It’s been the year of the cheetah,” said Les Loble, who stepped down as chairman of the Big Sky Resort Tax Board in November. “A cheetah has streamlined grace and explosive speed, and I think that Big Sky is in the midst of an explosion. In two years we’ll look back and say ‘Wow, 2013 was the flash of the explosion. Clearly that’s when Big Sky took off.’”

Bed tax collections in Big Sky were up 23 percent over 2012, totaling $1,191,172, according to the Montana Office of Tourism annual report, “Gross Lodging Tax Revenue.”

“[2013] will be a record lodging tax collection year for Big Sky,” wrote Ryan Hamilton, Project Manager for Big Sky Town Center, in an email.

It has been quite a year. Enjoy the top 10 stories of 2013, as compiled by our editorial team with input from the community.

Warren Miller Performing Arts Center completed

After years of planning, fundraising and stop-and-go construction, Big Sky finally has its performing arts center.

Completed in late February and built in the old Lone Peak High School gym, the 280-seat theater was named for iconic ski filmmaker Warren Miller, who calls Big Sky’s Yellowstone Club home for part of the year.

None other than Miller himself cut the ribbon at WMPAC’s March 12 open house.

“I don’t think there’s very many facilities like this anywhere in America,” Miller said of the center. “It’s as high tech a place as you’ll ever find. I’m proud to be part of that.”

The $1.94 million facility has state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, a green room, and a gallery/reception area.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock toured WMPAC on March 15, meeting with students, faculty and community members.

In its first year, the center was also host to student and community performances, and on Jan. 28, the first of nine major acts planned for its debut winter season, the James Sewell Ballet.

On Thanksgiving, the center’s artistic director John Zirkle announced the season’s schedule, which also included Chicago’s Second City comedy show, The Moth, and an original classical piece commissioned for the event, “Made in Montana.”

WMPAC is an ongoing collaborative initiative of the Big Sky School District, Friends of Big Sky Education, and the Big Sky community. Its primary mission is to establish and maintain a clear and stable artistic infrastructure to grow a community of confident performers and inspired audiences.

“We’re hoping to diversify the notion and understanding of performance art, and what it means,” Zirkle said, “specifically to show that it’s more than just music by focusing on a triptych of communicative media – movement, speech and play.”

Voters approve expansion for fire department, school district

Big Sky voters on May 7 approved two mill levy increases, giving both the local fire department and school district room to expand alongside the growing community.

The vote gave the Big Sky Fire Department $485,000 to hire five firefighters and assist with operational costs. BSFD hired the new firefighters this summer, helping it reach the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s national requirement to have at least four first responders on an incident at any given time.

The department previously had 10 full-time firefighters and 17 volunteers, and had been operating short-handed for years, with two to three firefighters on most emergency scenes, and sometimes even sending first responders alone.

The 10.362 mill levy on taxable property passed 409 to 241, increasing BSFD mills from $22 per $1,000 of a home’s taxable value to $33.04, but keeping it the third lowest-cost fire district in the Gallatin County for taxpayers.

Voter approval in hand, the Big Sky School District in July completed financing on $9.745 million in bonds for a school improvement project that will fund acquisition of two parcels of land contiguous to the school campus, as well as design, building and equipping a new pre-K through fourth grade facility.

Mills to pay debt service on the bonds will begin in 2014/2015, and are estimated to be 32.04; for a home valued at $100,000 on the tax rolls, that’s approximately $47.19 in new taxes. The true interest cost rate on the bonds is 3.11 percent. The district plans to acquire an additional loan of up to $455,000 for the remaining authorization of a total of $10.2 million with construction bids and costs. The term of these tax-exempt bonds is 15 years.

The number of students in the district has been growing quickly. Two years ago, it had 212, and this year, said Supt. Jerry House, 280 were enrolled in the fall semester, with at least 10 more coming in for the spring. Next year House estimates the district will have as many as 300 students.

The new elementary school will be adequate for 10-14 years, House said, at which point BSSD will likely need to have a separate middle school.

Real estate, high end development thrive as lower-end housing disappears

In the past year, Big Sky has witnessed an explosion both in development and infrastructure. The majority of this growth has been in the form of commercial spaces and high-end residential homes.

In high-end residential development, between 70 and 80 houses are under construction in the Yellowstone Club this winter. The greater Big Sky area has followed suit, with 51 additional new home starts in 2013.

According to Southwest Montana Multiple Listing Service data, there were $163,549,340 worth of real estate transactions in Big Sky year-to-date, as of Dec. 23.

“I could see $1 billion being invested in Big Sky-area real estate in the next 4-7 years,” said John Romney a developer who owns of a number of buildings in the Big Sky Town Center. “When you think of the impact on jobs and the impact on the local tax base, it’s significant.”

This has left a dearth of more moderately priced homes and long-term rental properties, dried up the inventory, and left many seasonal employees and those earning middle-class incomes out of luck.

“In resort areas, it’s more expensive to build,” said Bill Simkins, Developer for Big Sky Town Center. “There’s a real problem here, and it’s probably going to get worse if nothing’s done about it.”

Although plans for a number of commercial infrastructure projects were laid in 2012 – a new medical center and school being high on the list – few actual structures were erected. An exception to that is the 14 new wayfinding signs installed this summer by the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce along Highway 191 and Lone Mountain Trail, as well as five roadway lights at the junction of the roads.

PBR wins Touring Pro event of the year

Montana bull riding got even bigger in 2013.

In its third year, Big Sky’s Professional Bull Riding event was named the PBR Touring Pro Division Event of the Year at the World Finals in Las Vegas, Nev., on Oct. 24.

The idea hatched in Vegas was this year recognized in that same arena by the riders as the best in the country.

“My first PBR event was over 10 years ago in Las Vegas,” said Eric Ladd, CEO of Outlaw Partners, a sponsor of the Big Sky PBR (and publisher of Explore Big Sky). “I was so inspired after seeing the show and thought, ‘Wow, I’d really like to bring this to Big Sky.’”

Jacey and Andy Watson of Freestone Productions, PBR entertainer Flint Rasmussen and announcer Brandon Bates – both of whom work the World Finals and Big Sky show – were on the dusty floor of the Thomas & Mack Center pulling for the team.

“To have the riders vote the Big Sky PBR as the Touring Pro Event of the Year is a great honor,” said PBR CEO Jim Haworth, who witnessed the Montana production first-hand this summer. “It means that out of the 120 events on the tour, this is quickly becoming the [Touring Pro Division event] to attend on every riders’ list.”

The two-day event held in the Big Sky Town Center on July 31 and Aug. 1 included free concerts each night after the bulls finished bucking. The all-female AC/DC cover band Hell’s Belles ripped searing chords on night one to the delight of the crowd, and Bozeman-based outlaw country outfit The Dirty Shame treated revelers to a rocking show night two, during a mid-summer lightning storm.

“I think this is a proud moment for the town of Big Sky,” said Jim Murphy, owner of Continental Construction, and a presenting sponsor along with Ladd. “Big Sky already has the best skiing in North America, now they also have the best PBR Touring Pro Event.”

The 2014 Big Sky PBR will be held July 30 and 31, so start shopping for your snap shirts and Stetsons now.

Club at Spanish Peaks, Moonlight Basin and Lone Mountain Ranch all sold

It’s been a wild ride for three local resorts. Indicative of the rapid rate at which the Big Sky market is bouncing back from the recession, the Club at Spanish Peaks, Moonlight Basin and Lone Mountain Ranch were all brought out of bankruptcy in 2013.

On July 19, CrossHarbor Capital Partners and Boyne Resorts partnered to bring the 5,300-acre Club at Spanish Peaks’ assets out of Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.

“I believe this investment will result in important benefits for southwest Montana, preserving and creating jobs and attracting further investment in the region,” Sam Byrne, co-founder of Cross Harbor, said in a prepared statement.

Then, on Oct. 1, CrossHarbor and Boyne again joined forces, this time to relieve a subsidiary of Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc. of its duties to Moonlight Basin.

Loren Bough, Chairman of the Big Sky School Board and Vice Chair of the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, is ecstatic about the changes.

“Sam Byrne is the best thing to happen to Big Sky since Chet Huntley,” Bough said. “He shares my vision to make Ophir and Lone Peak High School the best schools in the state.”

Topping the year off, Makar Properties, a southern California-based real estate company purchased Lone Mountain Ranch, owned by Lehman Brothers since 2009.

“We are simply honored for the opportunity to add Lone Mountain Ranch to our portfolio of properties,” said Paul Makarechian, CEO of Makar Properties, a luxury realty firm that also owns properties in Palm Springs and Santa Barbara, Calif. “The Ranch is rich with heritage, shared experiences and stunning natural beauty.”

The big merger

Big Sky can now use its slogan “Biggest Skiing in America” without reserve.

After an Oct. 1 merger of Big Sky Resort with adjacent Moonlight Basin – which followed the acquisition of the assets of the Club at Spanish Peaks by the same partnership – the resulting mega-resort is now the largest ski resort in the U.S., with 5,750 acres of continuous skiing, 4,350 vertical drop and more than 30 lifts.

“Bringing together these exceptional organizations and creating a seamless and massive ski experience for our guests is a once in a lifetime opportunity for everyone; visitors, employees, community members, and owners,” said Big Sky Resort General Manager Taylor Middleton in an Oct. 9 press release.

The resort opened for the season on Nov. 28 with four chairlifts, including Swift Current, Explorer, Challenger and the Lone Peak Triple; the following weekend, 70 percent of the resort was open including terrain in the Moonlight area. And in late December, a pre-holiday storm dumped 34 inches of snow on the mountain.

Hiring a large number of former Moonlight Basin employees to augment its staff, Big Sky Resort has approximately 1,500 employees this winter season.

Big Sky has kept many of the events Moonlight was known for, like the Subaru Freeride World Tour and Turkey For A Ticket, which this year raised a record 76,424 pounds of food for regional food banks.

This is Big Sky Resort’s 40th season in operation. Don’t miss the Retro Red Ale, crafted by Lone Peak Brewery just for the occasion.

Plans for new Big Sky Medical Center underway

After a contentious seven-month process in which residents and stakeholders considered Bozeman Deaconess Health Services and Billings Clinic – both interested in building hospitals in Big Sky – BDHS announced in August its plans to build a $21 million medical facility that will include a 24-hour emergency services facility staffed by emergency trained medical providers and a primary care clinic that will work hand-in-hand with local primary care physicians.

BDHS owns and operates Bozeman Deaconess Hospital in Bozeman and has operated a pharmacy in Big Sky since 2004. The not-for-profit corporation has owned land in Big Sky Town Center since 2007, and this year negotiated to expand that parcel.

Significant population growth and economic recovery in the Big Sky area, combined with the possibility for future growth, is what convinced BDHS that now is the time for a new facility, said CEO Kevin Pitzer.

BDHS plans to seek hospital licensure for the facility, that will initially include a four-bed inpatient care unit, expandable to eight without requiring additional building expansion; eventually it will seek critical access hospital designation, allowing up to 25 beds.

The Big Sky Medical Center will offer onsite imaging, including a CT scanner, ultrasound, mobile MRI compatibility, lab services, retail pharmacy with expanded service hours, and a helicopter pad. BDHS specialty services and outreach clinics will be part of the future services offered at the facility.

The facility will add an estimated 30 new jobs to the Big Sky community.

After a ceremonial groundbreaking for the Big Sky Medical Center in September, BDHS opened an office in the Marketplace building and began pre-construction planning in December. Construction will begin in spring 2014, with opening projected for fall 2015.

Billings Clinic also completed a feasibility study to build a more advanced medical center in Big Sky earlier in 2012.

The Rut 50K ultramarathon chosen as Skyrunner World Series Final

After the inaugural event brought hundreds of runners to Big Sky Resort in September, The Rut 50K Mountain Run was chosen as the Skyrunner World Series Ultra Final for 2014, announced in late November.

The 2013 event drew a total of 400 runners for the 50K and 12K races, and next year will bring between 800-1,000, said Mike Foote, co-founder and race director with Mike Wolfe.

Set for Sept. 12-13, it will also have a new event, the Vertical Kilometer, a Skyrunner-trademarked event that’s defined as a 1,000-meter climb in less than five kilometers.

Based in Italy, the International Federation for Skyrunning’s 2014 World Series includes 15 events in six countries, with venues including the Italian Dolomites, the Swiss and French Alps, the Canary Islands, and Utah’s Wasatch Mountains.

As the final event in the ISF Ultra Series, The Rut 50K will draw the world’s top mountain runners, all shooting for part of a cash purse. Additionally, the World Series purse will be divvied up among the overall winners of the series Ultra Division.

The Rut is the largest athletic event hosted at Big Sky Resort, said Lyndsey Owens, marketing director for the resort.

LPHS golf wins states, Bozeman and Ennis football teams undefeated

It was a banner year for local high school sports. The Big Horns won their first ever state championship, and the Bozeman and Ennis football teams each capped perfect seasons with their own championships.

The Lone Peak High School boys’ varsity golf team finished first at the Montana High School State Class C Tournament in Ennis on May 22, bringing LPHS its first state championship title. Heading into the second day of play, cold temperatures, cloudy skies and sustained 30 mph winds played mayhem with the golfers’ games, but the Big Horn boys persevered.

“I coached them along the way, but it ultimately came down to them and their determination and will to win,” head coach Mike King said of the team. “For me, it was gratifying to see them fight the challenges and come out on top.”

Defending individual state champion and team captain Tate Tatom, an LPHS sophomore, finished first for the boys, winning soundly by 18 strokes. He finished with an even par round of 72 for a two-day, 2-over-par total of 146.

Two of Big Sky’s neighbors finished perfect seasons by winning state football championships in their respective classes. On Nov. 22, a bitterly cold Friday night, the Bozeman Hawks (13-0) took the AA state championship, beating Kalispell Glacier 24-14. The following day, the Ennis Mustangs (12-0) won the Class C-8 championship by defeating the previously undefeated Wibaux Mustangs in an old-fashioned championship shootout, 68-56.

The Hawks were also perfect in their 2009 championship run, but prior to that, the team hadn’t won a state championship since 1917.

Ennis hadn’t been to the championship game since 1983, which they lost. In 1982, they won the Class C state championship by beating Wibaux 38-28.

Roxy’s Market

On Nov. 28, Mike and Roxy Lawler broke ground for Roxy’s Market, a 17,000-square-foot grocery store in Town Center. It’s been a long time coming, according to Ryan Hamilton, Town Center Project Manager.

“This is something we’ve been working on and talking about at countless meetings over the years,” Hamilton said. “It will lead to a lot more jobs and will keep a lot more money in Big Sky.”

The Lawlers, who secured housing in Big Sky this fall, opened their first Roxy’s in Aspen, Colo. in 2009. With that store established, they were looking to expand.

“A magical, real mountain community [with] a lot of cachet is hard to find, [so it’s] great to be part of the development of Big Sky,” Roxy said.

The Lawlers plan to hire between 12-25 employees to run the store, depending on whom they can attract, Roxy said, adding that they’re looking for professionals interested in career opportunities.

“The timing has ended up being perfect,” she said. “I think the grocery store will be the cohesive glue to pull this community together.”

Roxy’s Market plans to open for business in fall 2014.