The Simkins family remains committed to the Big Sky Town Center
By Ryan Hamilton
Bob and his father Glen Simkins started a lumberyard in West Yellowstone in 1945, and another in Bozeman in 1950. Over this time, Bob became familiar with the beautiful Gallatin River canyon and the northwest corner of Yellowstone Park. For decades, thousands of tourists had passed through this area on the way to Yellowstone. They departed the train in Gallatin Gateway and passed through the mountains, seldom stopping. Due to the slow pace of transportation, a handful of dude ranches and lodges established themselves throughout the canyon.
In 1970, NBC newscaster Chet Huntley realized this area could be a destination itself. The magnificent Lone Peak would make a dramatic backdrop for a ski hill, and the surrounding private land had potential to become a world-class resort. Huntley, a Cardwell, Montana native, announced his dream and embarked on his project.
Simkins, a savvy businessman, thought it wise to buy land near Huntley’s proposed resort. He approached the owners of the 3,680-acre Sappington Ranch. They were willing to part with the property but needed replacement land for their livestock. Through a complicated series of negotiations and trades, Simkins secured replacement land for the Sappington ranch, found a financial partner, and acquired nearly six square miles of land in the area that would become the Big Sky Meadow. The deal was inked on the hood of a truck in the middle of a Montana snowstorm, and the signatures on the original deed are smeared and barely legible.
That spring, Simkins and his partner made a trip to Big Sky. They stood at the edge of their land, barred by a chain across the dirt road (now Lone Mountain Trail) and winter conditions. As they surveyed what they could see of the property, Gallatin National Forest district ranger Ross MacPherson happened along. MacPherson was on a snowmobile mission that day to “see if there’s a decent ski hill” on Andesite Mountain. He opened the gate and offered the partners a ride deeper into the ranch. The two were dressed in gabardine slacks and wingtips, so politely declined the offer. Later that day, MacPherson made what may have been the first ever ski run down Andesite Mountain. He reported back to the Forest Service that he thought it would “work as a ski hill.” Andesite is now an integral part of Big Sky Resort.
Big Sky Resort opened for business in fall of 1973 under the direction of Huntley, and after Huntley’s death in 1974 the resort was sold to Boyne USA. As Big Sky grew, small housing developments, condominiums and shops were built in two distinct areas: the Mountain Village centered on the ski resort, while the Meadow Village centered on a golf course.
Over the next two decades, the Simkins family used their property for weekend adventures. When Simkins passed away in 1993, he left his family a thriving lumber business, various land holdings, and his dream of making a difference in the Big Sky area. In 1995, the partnership began thinking about development. Their vision was to give Big Sky a central core for shopping, dining and housing that could act as a nucleus for the community. Unlike traditional resort towns, Big Sky was still a scattered group of houses, condos and small commercial developments.
During the Town Center planning process, the partnership also pursued housing development projects. But by 2003, it was clear the Town Center would require complete devotion and effort. The partnership initially created to purchase the ranch land back in 1970 dissolved, leaving the future of the Town Center in the Simkins’ hands. Since that time, Big Sky’s Town Center project has steadily moved forward. Building a town center is a monumental project though, and it will take years to complete. The Simkins have let market forces dictate the pace of development.
Today, the Simkins still ski at Big Sky most winter weekends. Jean, the family matriarch, gave up skiing several years ago in her late seventies. She still stays abreast of the family business in both the lumberyard and the Town Center. Bill Simkins, 59, still skis 40 days a year, but the Town Center is his full time job. His older brother, Tom, 62, is also an avid skier and devotes his workweek to the lumber business. Their younger brother, Mitch shares the responsibility of running the lumber yard. Sister Jan is an avid skier and also weighs in on the Town Center development.
The family feels it is important to be a part of the community. Tom was an active participant in drafting and implementing the Gallatin Canyon/Big Sky zoning regulations, a five year process that included countless public meetings. Bill has served on the Big Sky Zoning Advisory Board for several years.
Recently, the Simkins donated $20,000 and some materials for construction of the Spur Road Trail. They’ve given land to the Morningstar Learning Center, a preschool/daycare. This spring they built Center Stage and Town Center Park, which held the Arts Council’s popular Music in the Mountains free summer concert series and the Big Sky Farmers Market. They recently established the Big Sky Skating and Hockey Association. The Simkins believe these amenities, community services and events will help transform Big Sky from an isolated ski resort to a sustainable, livable, world class resort community.
Ryan Hamilton is the project manager of the Big Sky Town Center. For more information, visit BigSkyTowncenter.com.