Big Sky Chamber hosts Fourth Annual Community Forum to discuss projects, issues
By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – The Big Sky Chamber of Commerce congregated key Big Sky stakeholders as well as community members on the evening of Sept. 30 to engage in discussion on current area projects and issues for the Fourth Annual Community Building Forum.
Between a live and virtual audience, 140 people gathered online and in the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center to hear presentations from seven local public, private and nonprofit developers on their latest updates. Several key themes emerged including workforce housing, financial and environmental sustainability and public safety as it relates to wildfires and water. Two Q&A opportunities allowed the public to directly address presenters.
“We had great attendance and so I think that’s always a good barometer of how engaged our community is,” Chamber CEO Brad Niva told EBS after the event. “People are curious about things; they want to know things. Our job is to make sure that the right information is being shared.”
In the throes of a local housing crisis, housing was a prominent topic across presenters, both in the private and nonprofit sectors.
The conceptual Flatiron development, a proposed 1,440-unit project near Lone Moose, would feature residential and commercial space across 14 buildings and would provide public base-area amenities for Big Sky Resort skiers. Flatiron Project Manager Chris Leonard said during his presentation on the development that 900 workforce beds would be included in the project. The development, which is seeking approval from county zoning boards, has an estimated buildout of 15-20 years.
Matt Kidd, a managing director with CrossHarbor Capital Partners, presented on behalf of the Boston-based firm’s local affiliates, Yellowstone Club and Lone Mountain Land Company.
“I want to acknowledge many challenges that exist right now for you and your businesses,” Kidd said. “Housing availability is the number one issue. Housing cost is very much related to that. I would tell you that the next nine months will be the most challenging ever in the history or future of Big Sky to get housing.”
Indeed, statistics later shared by Laura Seyfang, executive director of the Big Sky Community Housing Trust, would emphasize Kidd’s claim. According to her presentation, 78 percent of Big Sky’s workforce is commuting, there is 0 percent rental availability in Big Sky and less than 30 percent of Big Sky homes are occupied by residents.
Kidd provided updates on LMLC and YC developments, including Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks Mountain Club, as well as LMLC’s workforce housing projects, Powder Light Subdivision and RiverView affordable housing project. RiverView, a collaboration with the housing trust, will provide 100 rental units.
“We think that’s the way to success in this town is for us to figure out how we can collaborate and work together to solve this really challenging problem,” Seyfang said.
New-build projects like RiverView are years away, but the housing trust is working on shorter term projects in the meantime. The Rent Local program, which incentivizes homeowners to rent to locals rather than put their property on the vacation rental market, has been a successful short-term initiative according to Seyfang.
Despite recent successes in creating short-term solutions, Seyfang echoed Kidd saying this will be a hard winter to find housing.
General Manager of Big Sky Resort Troy Nedved said workforce housing is one of the key initiatives that the resort is addressing. Nedved said that the update of Mountain Lodge East added 36 incremental beds, bringing the Resort’s total up to 667 beds. Nedved added that the resort’s five-year workforce housing plan will add more beds in the future.
Nedved also provided an update on the resort’s work to improve the guest experience including the new Swift Current 6 lift, which will be up-and-running for the 2021-22 ski season. The resort’s Forever Project will continue to be an important sustainability project, Nedved said. This project includes the resort’s new high efficiency snowmaking equipment, as well as the purchase of Renewable Energy Credits that enables the resort to operate on 100 percent renewable electricity.
During other presentations, community infrastructure was a focal point. Ron Edwards, general manager of the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District, provided updates on the many projects the district is working on, the largest undertaking being the wastewater treatment plant upgrade. The $43 million upgrade will double the facility’s capacity and Phase 1 of construction is expected to be completed in 2023.
Other water and sewer ongoing tasks include leak detection and repair, well exploration efforts and rate increases.
Danny Bierschwale, executive director of the Big Sky Resort Area District, opened his presentation by polling the audience about their experiences with the issues his organization is working to solve.
After asking how many people waited to be able to have a post office box, Bierschwale explained how BSRAD is working with the post office on plans to expand postal service and potentially receive a federal designation down the road.
“How many of you have been passed on the right-side Lone Mountain Road going up toward the resort?” he asked. Most in the audience raised their hand.
This common experience will be addressed by projects funded through the TIGER Grant, a federal grant awarded to Gallatin County for improvements along Lone Mountain Trail. Bierschwale said BSRAD is continuing to work on getting these projects started after the first bid came in $3 million over budget.
Big Sky Fire Chief Greg Megaard and Deputy Fire Chief Dustin Tetrault wrapped up the evening with a discussion of the wildland-urban interface that is Big Sky and the ways in which the Big Sky Fire Department is working to make it safer.
Megaard noted that BSFD plans to open Station 2 by Big Sky Resort 24/7, a huge step in expanding their services. Tetrault added his praise for the Big Sky community for their proactive efforts to address risk factors.
During the Q&As, Kidd and Nedved answered audience questions about retaining workforce, detailing how their organizations are working to increase employee benefits and house their seasonal employees. Niva added that this winter anyone who enters Big Sky will receive a notification on their phone welcoming them and providing them with information.
Edwards and Tetrault spent time fielding several questions at the end of the evening. In answer to questions about emergency response and evacuation plans, Tetrault said that BSFD recently conducted a table top exercise to simulate an emergency and identify any weak points in the plan.
Water was also on everyone’s mind with people asking about water management and a potential unified water and sewer district. Edwards said he is working with the newly formed Gallatin Canyon Water and Sewer District and could envision one unified district in the future.