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Does Big Sky need a permanent events arena?

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Outlaw Partners Chairman Eric Ladd created plans for a possible events arena that would provide a 5,000-person capacity. OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO

A look back and a look to the future

By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – In the majestic shadow of Lone Mountain, 1,500 people gathered on Aug. 3, 2011, in a makeshift arena on bleachers, hay bales and even rafts atop buses for the first annual Big Sky Professional Bull Riders event. Since then, the arena has moved and grown, and this year marks the 10th anniversary of this celebrated tradition. 

Outlaw Partners CEO Megan Paulson recalls planning the first event and trying to determine a location. “We were looking out the window and thought, ‘How about in the field?’” she said, referring to formerly vacant land in Town Center owned by the Simkins family. 

“At that time, nothing was in the field except sagebrush: no hospital, no movie theatre, no grocery store, no condos, no infrastructure…nothing,” Paulson said. “When it came to the idea of bringing a nationally recognized event to Big Sky, our partners were on board and from there Outlaw’s path to planning and executing the first-year event came together very quickly.” 

For the first PBR in 2011, fans watched from bleachers, hay bales, and even in rafts placed on top of a bus. OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO

This wasn’t without a little help, of course. 

“We had amazing support thanks to key partnerships with Jim Murphy, Yellowstone Club, Simkins family, Big Sky Town Center, Andy and Jacey Watson, and the entire Big Sky community,” Paulson added. “It’s unique to say we literally built the arena and now Big Sky PBR’s legacy from the ground up. There was a real need for a signature community gathering, and once the dirt was tilled, the first bleachers came in and the big white tent went up, there was a certain excitement around town of what was to come.”

Today, PBR has become a fixture in Big Sky, attracting as many as 30,000 visitors throughout the week and winning PBR Event of the Year seven times. The event is now celebrated with 10 days of festivities leading up to three rowdy nights of bull riding. 

Despite the international growth and popularity of Professional Bull Riders events over the last 30 years, the fate of the local Big Sky PBR rests on an impermanent land-use agreement and temporary arena infrastructure. 

While Outlaw Partners owns the bleachers, they do not own the land, putting the venue at risk of being sold or transferred. The land-use agreement with the Simkins family in place for the venue was recently extended through October 2022, but that does not guarantee Big Sky PBR will exist there in perpetuity.

According to Brad Niva, CEO of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, one solution for Big Sky PBR and all other large, local events would be the creation of a permanent events center, though the road to achieve this has yet to be paved. 

“There’s no doubt we need a facility to keep great events like PBR,” Niva said. “It would be fantastic if we were to build a facility that had multiple uses throughout the year for other events to be hosted in Big Sky.”

The current pace and priorities of development in Big Sky are evident through the condos and commercial buildings sprouting up at a rapid speed in the area, a reality that Paulson says is challenging PBR’s needs for infrastructure and space.

“The minute that land is gone, it’s gone, and we as a community risk losing that opportunity,” Paulson said, adding that a permanent events center would support one of Big Sky’s summer economic drivers, while aiding ongoing efforts to make Big Sky a year-round destination and to grow future events. 

“We’re at the point where you have a lot of people now calling Big Sky home year round,” she added. “The demand for community events is continuing to grow and we have the opportunity to craft what that future looks like right now before it’s too late.” 

Despite the challenges, Paulson says much can be gained from such infrastructure and short versus long term economic drivers for the community. Large events bring value to the community, she said, both as a central gathering point and as an economic boon for local businesses. 

According to a 2018 Economic Impact Analysis prepared by Circle Analytics, the Big Sky PBR creates a gross economic output of $3.4 million. Those dollars then benefit the community, circulating through Big Sky businesses. In addition to pumping revenue into the local economy, the Big Sky PBR also supports a philanthropic effort that has raised more than $1 million over the years for local and regional charities.

“Events like PBR are huge drivers of business for me,” said Amy Langmaid, owner of Rhinestone Cowgirl, a local Western boutique. “I definitely do well whenever there are events, especially PBR.”

Leigha Bohn, grocery manager at the Hungry Moose Market and Deli, said large events mean big moneymaking weeks for the local grocery.

“[Events] can be really demanding staffing-wise but we know that it benefits our business especially because we’re so close to the music and close to PBR,” Bohn said of the Town Center-based store. While the Moose crew works hard during PBR, their proximity to the event allows them to hear music, cheers and other PBR ambiance from the store. “PBR helps us feel like we’re a part of the party,” Bohn said.

Ania Bulis, longtime Big Sky local and VP of sales at The Big Sky Real Estate Co., has been a tried-and-true PBR fan since day one. 

“One of the things that I found really compelling about the event is the way in which it brings all aspects and all elements of our community together,” Bulis said. 

It’s not only about bull riding, she added, emphasizing the tie to philanthropy and community connection.

Events are the cornerstone of Big Sky’s mountain town culture, says Erik Morrison, marketing and events manager for Big Sky Town Center.

“I would love to see an event center in Big Sky somewhere that could really host these larger events,” said Morrison, who spearheads the weekly Farmers Market on Wednesday evenings.

In the same way that Big Sky banded together to make the first PBR happen, Morrison said that the best way to move forward on a permanent events arena project would be through community partnerships. 

“Nobody does anything alone in Big Sky because of the way that we’re structured and that we’re unincorporated,” he said. “All great things that have been done here, most of them have been done through the power of partnership with nonprofits, districts, and private funds and philanthropy. That’s how things get done here.”

Eric Ladd, chairman of Outlaw Partners and publisher of Explore Big Sky, believes a permanent arena could help safeguard these culturally and economically critical events. The new arena would not only be a fitting new home for PBR, Ladd said, but would also provide alternative uses including for “concerts, private events, corporate events and a more suitable hockey arena.”

Right now, Jericho Studios, a Bozeman-based event production, recording studio and A/V design company, provides the equipment and staff for all Warren Miller Performing Arts Center events as well as those put on by the Yellowstone Club and the Arts Council of Big Sky. Jeremiah Slovarp, technical director and president at Jericho Studios, estimated that his company runs events three days per week in Big Sky throughout the summer. 

To staff and put on the free summer concert series Music in the Mountains for the Arts Council, Slovarp said he brings the equipment and staff, filling out the stage in Town Center. Each week, Jericho Studios sets everything up and takes it all down. On the opposite end of the events spectrum are complete venues like the Rialto and the Armory in Bozeman that have everything they need on site.

Slovarp said there would be value in building a permanent arena in Big Sky since the fully equipped space would reduce labor costs and eliminate the need to rent equipment.

A larger space would also expand the variety of acts that could be hosted in Big Sky, according to Slovarp. He offered WMPAC as an example: While the performing arts center has been successful in producing excellent shows, he said, it’s limited by the capacity of the theater.

So, what does the road to a permanent arena look like? Ladd has an idea. 

“First is to locate a piece of land ideally centered in Big Sky’s core district and then to secure funding to build the facility,” he said. “The most ideal location based off the feedback of businesses, sponsors and ticketholders is in the Town Center to allow connectivity to the heartbeat of Big Sky.”

Ladd has some early designs in the works for the arena. The new space he envisions would bring a 5,000-person capacity as well as a separate 15,000 to 20,000-square-foot events barn to Big Sky. 

The benefit of this facility is twofold, he says. “Economic impact studies show that organized events bring very strong economic impact to the surrounding businesses,” he said. “The second is that the facility could have a strong tie to local charities, local business needs. It basically creates a community resource for gathering.” 

Especially in the West, the community gathering point is key. Ladd pointed to other towns including Billings and Ennis as well as Jackson and Cody, Wyoming, all of which have arenas or fairgrounds that represent “the Western way of life.” Big Sky would not be the first town to create this type of infrastructure but rather would follow in the footsteps of other cities in the West.

This year marks the tenth year of the PBR in Big Sky which has won PBR Event of the Year seven times. OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO

One such city that made the investment in events infrastructure is Medford, Oregon, which was under the purview of Niva when he was the executive director of Travel Southern Oregon. Niva said the community was able to make a large investment in an outdoor field system that brought in a huge economic impact to the area which has since been paid off. The city was able to raise its lodging tax by about 2 percent to fund the infrastructure project, Niva said.

According to Daniel Bierschwale, executive director of the Big Sky Resort Area District, there has never been an application to the BSRAD board requesting resort tax money to fund the construction of an events center. However, that doesn’t mean the district wouldn’t support that type of project. 

“We definitely know that the events that happen in Big Sky not only bring a unique cultural perspective and an essence to who the community is but also have an economic impact on the community,” he said. 

Sara Blechta, chair of the BSRAD board, noted that important questions need to be answered before resort tax could make a decision on a request of that nature. 

“I think having events in Big Sky and having people come here for events is really important to our community and I have major support for getting a community-type event center,” Blechta said. “The question really is, ‘Is it privately funded or is it publicly funded?’” she said.

Thus far, BSRAD has not pulled numbers on the economic impact from specific events from its collections data, but Bierschwale said something like that is in the works.

Much has changed since the first PBR event in 2011 and a flood of visitors is expected to wash through Big Sky for the event this year. The original bleachers have been expanded and upgraded, a vendor village will fill the Wilson Plaza, and live music will follow each of the three nights of riding. 

Bulis, who has watched PBR grow over the years from the ragtag arena in 2011 to the 10 days of events that now fill Big Sky’s social calendar, said that thanks to PBR the Town Center has really become the central core of Big Sky and helped the community. She described herself as “not your average PBR fan” emphasizing that the event is one of her favorite ways to gather with family and friends at a community-driven event.

“To me, it’s so much less about the bull riding,” Bulis said “and so much more about the communitywide event and an opportunity to gather.”

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