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A small but painful blow to affordable housing 

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In the Gallatin Canyon of Big Sky, a longtime trailer park is for sale, and its residents are thinking of a backup plan. PHOTO BY MICHAEL RUEBUSCH

Inevitable reality: a Big Sky legacy is for sale with the George Norman Trailer Court in the Gallatin Canyon 

By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER 

Robert “Kenny” Alley said he’s been in Big Sky for, let’s see, 34 years now.  

He’s semi-retired—he found out you can’t just sit around, so he’s been working with Warren Bibbins, former Olive B’s owner, splitting and piling wood for sale outside the Whitewater Inn on U.S. Highway 191.  

Not far from the woodpile is the trailer court where Alley lives, at 46950 Gallatin Road, a parcel listed for sale at $5.3 million this past winter. If it sells, he won’t be able to move his trailer.  

“I’d hate to go back to work,” Alley said. He’s almost 71 years old. “That threw a curveball to me.” 

Alley showed Explore Big Sky around the neighborhood, stopping to chat on his front porch. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

He skied about 80 days in 2021-22, but had “a slow year” with 60 ski days in 2022-23 and hopes for 120 next winter. He’s won both of his battles with liver cancer. As the commander of Big Sky’s American Legion Post No. 99, he had the idea for the quarterly rent assistance program which raffles $2,000 every three months to a pair of eligible renters in Big Sky. Now he’s preparing to leave his home of 28 years: the trailer he bought in 1995.  

“This used to be the cheapest rent in Big Sky, and you were real lucky to get one of these, to tell you the truth,” said Alley, the park’s oldest resident who’s watched neighbors cycle through, some starting families. Soon, he expects about 20 people to be displaced from their homes, assuming that the buyer won’t keep the lot as a trailer park. Most of the trailers aren’t mobile. Alley would abandon his trailer, right after he added a master bedroom extension, a metal roof and new windows.  

“A lot of people got their start right here in this trailer park,” Alley said. “You’d be surprised who lived here.” 

Dave O’Connor, executive director of the Big Sky Community Housing Trust, lived in the park for two different stints in the early 1990s. He was bartending at Buck’s T4—a staple of Big Sky hospitality which he eventually co-owned—and was grateful to rent an affordable home with the Gallatin River in his backyard.  

“It started my lifelong preference for living in the canyon,” O’Connor told EBS. “And I formed friendships with people that I have to this day. Many of the people that I lived next to in the trailer court at that time are still living in Big Sky, if not living in the trailer court.”  

O’Connor named names. He said he could think of dozens of examples—the park dates back to the 1970s, when the land was first developed by George Norman. He said many of his neighbors from 1992 are still there, still working full time and approaching retirement.  

“It’s a group of residents that have given quite a bit to this community over the years. I don’t know if the American Legion would have gotten off the ground if it weren’t for Kenny. I know Joe Mama [Rogers] has cooked in every kitchen in town, and had his own restaurant, and there’s lots of stories like that. It’s a unique group of residents that I think are just an integral part of the community.” 

Alley called this ‘66 chevy “the truck that built Big Sky” for its long-forgotten work building bridges with logs before it belonged to him. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

O’Connor said it’s undeniably a high-value piece of property, and that for anyone’s purchase to pencil out, they’d need to build for a greater density of residents or construct much higher value structures—in either case, the current situation won’t make financial sense.  

But water challenges, including the recent impairment designation of the Gallatin River which could halt canyon development for a handful of years, might limit buildout density. O’Connor said the limiting factor on that property is wastewater disposal. The Gallatin Canyon County Water and Sewer District aims to pump canyon septic up to Big Sky’s top notch wastewater resource recovery facility—which would enable a bigger build—but the river impairment may complicate that project.  

EBS asked about the possibility of someone purchasing the lot and electing to keep the trailer court. At first, O’Connor was doubtful, noting that it would need to be a philanthropic angel investor. But he didn’t rule anything out.  

“I’m always blown away what this community is able to accomplish with its philanthropic efforts. I’m always optimistic that within this community there could be some willingness to keep that community as it is,” he said.  

“If someone walked in today and said, ‘we’re going to donate you [$5.3 million], we’d jump at it and operate [the trailer court] in a heartbeat. But those visitors are few and far between,” O’Connor added. 

‘Fingers crossed’ 

On Jan. 27, 2002, the Olympic torch made its way north from Idaho Falls toward Bozeman on day 55 of its roundabout relay to Salt Lake City. Alley and his neighbors put every ski they could find beside the highway, spelling “USA 2002” in the snowbank. The torchbearers stopped and barbecued with Big Sky locals for three hours, eating elk steak.  

When EBS stopped by in April, Alley pointed around the neighborhood, describing each neighbor by name. He pointed around the Levinski Ridge, telling stories of his hikes, climbs, an old gold-mining camp and a giant wagon wheel his friend discovered high on the ridge. He reminisced, sharing how the original ski trail sign for Elk Park Ridge ended up on his home’s exterior.  

“This thing’s immobile,” Alley said. “You’d have to bring a canister—crumple it and throw it in a canister.”  PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

“It’s got hope in this [park]. We’ve lived here so long—it would break our heart to have to move… There’s several movable trailers,” Alley said. Then he listed which ones can’t move, and would be demolished. 

“It’s sad to see it go,” Alley repeats. “You talk about workforce housing—this is one of the originals. This trailer park has been like an institution in Big Sky, since way back… It was here when I showed up in ‘86.” 

Alley remembers another original; Hidden Village was once a trailer park, until the units were pulled out around 1989 or ‘90. Alley said that was one of John Kircher’s biggest regrets. 

“We’ve been here for years and never thought it would be up for sale,” Alley said. “But these days in Big Sky, everything’s up for sale.” 

As for any interested buyers, Alley said the tenants don’t know anything.  

“I don’t think really anybody’s that interested in this [property] right now… Who knows, somebody might step up off the highway and buy this thing… Nobody wants to be the bad guy and make us move, you know.” 

He said the neighborhood is trying not to be negative about the situation. After all, while it’s been a harsh reality to face, they’ve known for years that the property could hit the market. Alley said the property owner Jeannette Fell is “a good gal.” 

Alley noted she once owned Fell’s Old Time Bakery and helped build the classic mall in Westfork Meadows, now home to Blue Moon Bakery, BYWOM, Milkies, the Broken Spoke and three dispensaries.  

EBS was unable to reach Fell for comment. Alley said she got tired of living beside so much development in the Gallatin Canyon. 

“We always knew it was going to happen, just not so fast,” he said back in February.  

In a June follow-up phone call, Alley said they’re still trying to keep upbeat about it.  

“Kind of just, keep your fingers crossed,” he said. “Hopefully it will just kinda get forgotten about. Can’t guarantee it, but sometimes that’s what you hope.” 

The property’s listing agent, Katie Haley Grimm, declined to comment to EBS.  

Grimm has been in Big Sky since the 1970s, and Alley pointed out that her husband, Jake, plows the trailer court. Alley used to work for Jake, who owns Jake’s Horses about 2 miles south.  

When the ‘For Sale’ sign was blown over by the winter wind, Alley said the tenants called to let Katie know, and to assure her they didn’t do it.  

This land was first developed as a trailer park in the 1970s by George Norman. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

O’Connor emphasized, “there’s no black hat in this story.”  

He said Fell has owned this property for decades, and nobody faults her for selling it as she reaches retirement.  

“It just is still a difficult outcome that I hope these people don’t have to face,” O’Connor said. “At the very least I hope we can find [RiverView] apartments for them.” 

‘We’re just old ski bums here’ 

Alley said he figured he’d live in his trailer until he was an old man. 

“Right now, it doesn’t look good. I don’t know where I can go [in Big Sky]… I’ve got some ideas of where I need to move in Montana,” he said.  

As a skier, he said it’s hard to think of leaving. If he does stay in Big Sky, he’s sure he can’t retire. He rattled off a few neighbors that are also close to retirement. Then he added that Big Sky isn’t built for retirement unless you’ve got a lot of money.  

“We’ve talked about doing a co-op thing, where everyone here buys into [the property]. But nobody here can afford it. We’re just old ski bums here. Nobody’s rich. This has always been our little sanctuary right here,” Alley said. “We all know each other, we help each other out, we’ve always been supportive. I just hate to see it go. If it goes, a lot of us are going to have to move to Bozeman. Or get six roommates and move up into the meadow.” 

O’Connor is hopeful that the RiverView low-income housing tax credit apartments would be a viable option for those residents, with a similar rent to what they’re paying in the trailer court. However, they would need to apply through the same federal program as other applicants. The housing trust cannot earmark any units for those displaced from the trailer park.  

“We sure would if we could,” O’Connor said.

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