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Follow the leader, Pt. 1

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PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

Big Sky community, experts question local leadership viability

This is the first installment of a two-part story, and part of a larger examination of leadership and governance in Big Sky. Stay tuned to explorebigsky.com and pick up the next edition of EBS for the second installment. 

By Bella Butler and Brandon Walker EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – When Chet Huntley wed his public name with what is now the burgeoning resort town of Big Sky, Montana, he had a vision—a self-governing, independent mountain-town paradise. That vision remains intact, but as Big Sky and the greater Gallatin County witness explosive growth, some in this unincorporated hamlet are raising questions about governance and leadership.

On Aug. 14, Josh Treasure, a seven-year Big Sky resident and general manager at Roxy’s Market, posed a question about the prospect of local government on Facebook. 

“Would you be in favor of incorporating Big Sky? Please comment yes or no,” Treasure wrote. What Treasure described as an attempt to engage the community in constructive conversation quickly turned into a digital debate. Treasure’s post received 97 comments. 

“There just needs to be more education on if we were to incorporate what would happen,” Treasure said during a Nov. 16 interview with EBS. “What are the pros and cons, and do the pros outweigh the cons?” 

Treasure appreciates what he calls the “Wild West and libertarian feel” and absence of big government in Big Sky, but also recognizes growing issues in the community. And he says some form of centralized government could help. Workforce housing, a hot topic in Big Sky, is a major concern of his. Indeed, Treasure says he spends roughly 20 of his 80 weekly work hours laboring to secure and maintain housing for his employees. 

Treasure gave a nod to the efforts of the Big Sky Community Housing Trust and its program supervisor, Laura Seyfang, but believes the trust could use support from a centralized government. He also believes that Big Sky’s Zoning Planning Advisory Committee, of which he is an advising member, would “actually have some power to implement change in the community” in an incorporated Big Sky. 

The committee advises Gallatin County on zoning decisions in Big Sky, a “census-designated place,” or CDP, with a population of 2,300 as of the 2010 census (the current figure is likely closer to 3,100, according to the World Population Review).

Treasure says the people who live and work here want what’s best for the community, though he doesn’t purport to know whether that is incorporation or not. He does suggest that, whether it be a mayor, CEO or other authority guise, Big Sky deserves a person whose full-time job is to wake up every day and fight for the people of Big Sky. 

“There needs to be someone to do that [who] is not influenced by developers or outside sources that is just paid through our tax dollars to wake up and [care] about people in Big Sky,” he said. 

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Today, much of Big Sky looks quite different from the undeveloped virgin land of Huntley’s ‘70s, but it remains one of 184 unincorporated communities in Montana, according to the Montana Department of Transportation. For its part, the Montana Department of Revenue recognizes 10 resort areas that collect resort tax, four of which, including Big Sky, are unincorporated. 

Without an official government, the current leadership in Big Sky is comprised of a patchwork of boards, committees, nonprofits, districts and associations, all operating with varying levels and limitations of leadership powers.

“We could indeed benefit from a locally elected governing body that could make decisions for the town itself,” Steve Merlino wrote in a Facebook message to EBS. Merlino, a Big Sky resident since 2004, was one of the Facebook users to comment on Treasure’s August post in favor of incorporating Big Sky and remains open to alternative methods of leadership.

“More importantly, you need representation from the workers that actually make the town run,” Merlino wrote. “The perspective from the current workforce is important.” 

The fact that Treasure, Merlino and other community members are discussing structured government in Big Sky is nothing new; a number of groups have tussled with the controversial topic of governance in Big Sky for years. 

In 2004, under a community planning initiative, the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce convened the Big Sky Community and Infrastructure Group, a subcommittee chaired by then-chamber board president Kate Ketschek. The group was formed to address the issue of local government. 

The Big Sky Resort Area District has also dipped its toes into such exploration, soliciting an opinion from Montana’s attorney general a few years following the subcommittee’s creation.

In 2018, the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce hired Dan Clark, director of Montana State University’s Local Government Center to “look at how we as a community could better utilize tools already available to us to facilitate more collaborative local governance on behalf of Big Sky,” according to current chamber CEO Candace Carr Strauss. At the time, Carr Strauss asked Clark to omit incorporation from his report in order to limit the scope to resources already available in the community and to avoid duplicating past incorporation investigations. 

Today, more than two years following the release of his report on potential leadership options for Big Sky, Clark said the topic is still simmering. 

“You’ll find in communities [that] there’s an ebb and flow of issues,” Clark said in a Nov. 11 interview with EBS. “And it seems that this is probably one of those flow sessions where they’re starting to have this conversation.”

Clark said momentum due to growth and the pandemic has created a dynamic circumstance that may force the community to confront the future. Local population continues to climb in one of the fastest growing counties of its kind in the nation, and the Big Sky School District’s enrollment has trended upward in the last five years, increasing by 22 percent since 2015. The district added 28 new students this school year, ballooning the enrollment from 380 to 408 students.   

Perhaps a more accurate measure of growth, however, in a town that hosts a significant number of second homeowners, is real estate. So far in 2020, the collective Big Sky real estate market has raked in nearly $600 million in residential and land sales, according to Multiple Listings Service, a 65 percent increase from 2019’s end-of-year total of $360 million.

Proportionately, business has been good. According to a 2019 report by the Big Sky Chamber, resort tax collections increased 109 percent since 2009, and visitation to Big Sky Resort and Yellowstone National Park continues to rise. Indeed, Yellowstone saw its busiest September and October on record. These numbers, in short, indicate that more people are coming to Big Sky—and more people are staying. 

“You’ve got a tremendous community with strongly committed folks,” Clark said. “A lot of tenacity, a lot of resilience. The question … for the community to ask themselves is ‘Can we sustain this model [in] perpetuity, or are we just going to exhaust ourselves trying to keep up?” 

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