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Big Sky Chamber talks infrastructure, building a community at 3rd annual forum

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PHOTO COURTESY OF ENDEAVOR BALLOONING

By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – Big Sky is transitioning, a period of growth from being recognized solely as a great adventure destination, to becoming a community. To address the issues that arise during the growth period and keep the community informed, the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce hosted its third annual Community Building Forum on the evening of Sept. 17.

Members involved in the projects helping shape the town include: the Big Sky Community Housing Trust, Big Sky Community Organization, Big Sky Medical Center, Big Sky Resort, Big Sky Resort Area District, Big Sky School District, Big Sky Town Center, Big Sky County Water & Sewer District, Lone Mountain Land Company and NorthWestern Energy.

“Someone was going to build out Big Sky … and we want to do it right,” said Matt Kidd, managing director at CrossHarbor Capital Partners. “You can walk down main street, which you couldn’t do a few years ago.”

Kidd, who has been working in Big Sky for 13 years, updated viewers on CrossHarbor’s three main projects: Yellowstone Club, Spanish Peaks and Moonlight Basin. In addition, they secured 24 acres along Jack Creek Road as a wildlife easement and announced a few new businesses that will be joining Town Center in the coming season: Black Diamond and Chair Therapy Barber.

Although CrossHarbor has struggled with the same uncertainties that any other business has amid COVID-19, Kidd noted that the Wilson Hotel, despite losing almost all their occupancy from March to May, exceeded 96 percent occupancy in July.

“Big Sky is on the map and people want to be here, and that is good for business,” he said.

In addition to the 78 long-term employee housing units CrossHarbor is working on, they are also pushing for more hotel growth; while annual skier visits reach 700,000 people, Big Sky only has 879 hotel rooms.

Brian Wheeler, vice president of Real Estate and Development at Big Sky Resort, updated the public on the resort’s projects, including the fastest chairlift in the country: the new Swift Current 6 lift. The chairlift will replace the current one, bringing skiers from the base to the mountain in just a minute. They are also moving forward on the D-line, a 10 passenger gondola which includes a midway Learning Center and restaurant.

A topic of high interest was touched on by both Ryan Hamilton of Simkins Hallin, Inc. and Ciara Wolfe, CEO of the Big Sky Community Organization—the new BASE community center. The new center broke ground earlier this year and is anticipated to finish in early 2021. The community centers design includes Len Hill Park, two baseball fields, a pickleball field, an ice rink, gym and climbing wall, as well as meeting rooms and offices.

“This is our organization’s largest project and we truly cannot be more excited to open the doors of this project to the community,” Wolfe said. “It’s something I think represents the values of this community and how innovative we are.”

The building is also aiming to gain a platinum LEED certification, making it the most efficient building in Big Sky. In a recent press release, BSCO noted that progress is being made on the campus, including that geothermal wells have been connected, plumbing and foundation concrete have been completed and framing for the building exterior will begin at the end of the month.

Robert Rowe, president and CEO of NorthWestern Energy, which serves 5,800 customers in Big Sky, spoke of infrastructure upgrades in the area noting that all of the work they’ve done in the last few years has been built with future growth in mind. When asked about long-term infrastructure management in relation to fire safety, Rowe said that right now, Montana currently has 30 vegetation crews who regularly inspect the power grid for potential fire risks. NorthWestern has been working with other power companies to better understand what practices make sense.

Ron Edwards voiced another important utility in Big Sky—water. The general manager of the water and sewer district, Edwards says they’ve been very busy keeping up with growth in the form of a wastewater treatment facility upgrade, the district’s biggest project.

“The growth here has necessitated us to start a new plant, sooner rather than later,” he said. The double plant capacity will be 1.3 million gallons and made possible by $27 million in resort tax funds.

Candace Carr Strauss announced that the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce moved their building to Town Center and talked about the chamber’s expanded programs including round tables and leadership development opportunities.

“I consider us the connective tissue that keeps all of these other parts together,” Carr Strauss said. She added that Yellowstone National Park just had the second highest August visitation on record, second only to the 2017 eclipse, whereas other National Parks such as Grand Canyon, had lost hundreds of thousands of annual visitors this year due to COVID-19. She said Big Sky is on track to see a September and October tourism season “like never before.”

Daniel Bierschwale, executive director of the Big Sky Resort Area District, supplemented his update with a poignant Theodore Roosevelt quote: “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”

“I don’t think that’s happening here in Big Sky,” Bierschwale said.

In Montana, 11 communities have a resort tax with the purpose of minimizing visitor impacts on local services and infrastructure. All of the 4 percent resort tax stays in the Big Sky community. Bierschwale believes that the resort tax district’s primary goal is to lead with transparency and collaboration within the community.

Taylor Rose, director of Clinical Services & Operations at Big sky Medical Center, updated viewers on how the hospital has responded to both growth and the pandemic. The hospital has doubled its inpatient bed capacity to eight, with six emergency beds, two primary care physicians and one physician’s assistant.

Dustin Shipman superintendent of the Big Sky School District, spoke of the $23.5 million bond that passed, allowing the school district to expand campus—there are plans for a science, technology and music center as well as a CAD design and workshop classroom.

“We’re the only high school in Montana that does not have a facility where kids can learn to build things with power tools,” Shipman said.

Laura Seyfang of the Big Sky Housing Trust addressed one of Big Sky’s most critical needs: housing for working class residents. While housing process have increased 78 percent, acquiring funding for low-income housing projects remains difficult because Big Sky is not incorporated.

“We’ve heard so much tonight about all the growth that Big Sky is experiencing but … we just haven’t caught up with all the housing needed for those folks,” she said.

Seyfang said while Crossharbor and Big Sky Resort are focusing on their seasonal workers, the BSHT is helping the people who are looking to live here for the long haul, aiming to provide both rental and home ownership opportunities. Projects include income-based housing units, down payment assistance as well as the “landing locals” program, which connects homeowners who have empty rentals with those seeking.

BSHT studied similar communities such as Jackson, Wyoming and Summit County, Colorado to see where they get their housing funding and found that their assets were very diversified—never primarily from a single source. Big Sky, she noted, with its community engagement, would be capable of supporting a similarly-structured housing solution.

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