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On May 2, 14 stakeholders sat down together for the first Elevate Big Sky meeting. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

Elevate Big Sky launches with inaugural meeting

By Gabrielle Gasser ASSOCIATE EDITOR

BIG SKY – In an effort to mobilize resources and address community needs, Big Sky’s four major philanthropic organizations are teaming up to create a new funding collaborative known as Elevate Big Sky. 

Intended to develop a funding mechanism and resource pool that will tackle complex challenges in the community, Elevate Big Sky will work to develop strategic solutions, invite grantee proposals and organize resources. These efforts will address three core focus areas the collaborative has identified: livability, health and wellness, and environment. 

The collaborative includes Big Sky Resort Area District, Moonlight Community Foundation, Spanish Peaks Community Foundation and Yellowstone Club Community Foundation. These four major community funding partners are joined by partners from CrossHarbor Capital Partners and Big Sky Resort as well as five other community members. 

The collaborative intends to hear community ideas and feedback which it can use to prioritize and strategize solutions. The new Elevate Big Sky Committee, comprised of 11 members representing each faction, will field requests which can then be passed on to funding partners. 

Ruthi Solari, director of community partnerships for Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, serves as the leader of the committee and she noted at the first meeting that this process is an “emergent design” meaning it hasn’t been done before.

“The readiness and willingness is there,” Solari said. “The guidance for what this whole process looks like is still emerging.” 

This morning at the Town Center office, 14 people including the committee members as well as associated staff sat down for the first time together for Elevate Big Sky’s inaugural meeting.

“I think it was everything we were hoping for,” Solari said after the meeting. “The people in the room, everyone came ready to have thoughtful, deliberate conversation and ready for collaboration and that’s what we’ve been hoping for.”

After initial introductions, Solari sparked a lively conversation during the meeting about current challenges in Big Sky by asking each member to share their orientation to Big Sky, an issue that they feel is urgent or “on fire” in the community and an issue that they care most about. 

Chief among the concerns voiced was livability, an umbrella under which attendees identified several pressing issues including affordable housing, traffic congestion and lack of early child care options.

Erika Frounfelker, school counselor at Ophir Schools, speaks at the May 2 Elevate Big Sky meeting. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

Though many community challenges were discussed, all present voiced their love of the Big Sky community and offered reminders that there are many positive aspects of life in this unique mountain town.

“We do have a great sense of community,” said John Seelye, a longtime Big Sky resident and business owner and one of the committee members. “Regardless of challenges this is a phenomenal community.”

At the core of Elevate Big Sky’s model is community voice which will inform what the collaborative addresses, Solari explained in the meeting. This way of organizing efforts is also known as participatory grant-making.

Elevate Big Sky has roots reaching back to 2019 when the Our Big Sky Strategic Plan was completed. The plan spurred community-wide conversation and ultimately led to a community vision informed by priorities from community members. Then, in July 2021, Big Sky’s funding organizations came together to discuss a potential collaborative impact fund and a launch committee was formed of board members from each funding partner and two community members, Seelye as well as Christine Baker, longtime community member and vice president of Mountain Sports School at Big Sky Resort.

From this launch committee, Elevate Big Sky was born.

To address Elevate Big Sky’s focus areas, the committee will approach its work with a four-step process: identify, prioritize, allocate and evaluate.

The goal, according to Solari, is to think innovatively and collaboratively and support multi-stakeholder, multi-year projects that will dig into some of the more complex issues faced by the Big Sky community.

To wrap the first meeting, the 11-person committee decided that the board will use a two-thirds majority when voting and it will meet bi-monthly for 90 minutes for the foreseeable future. 

“We can’t be anti-growth or anti-development,” Solari said after the meeting. “We have to say, ‘how do we do so while also prioritizing these real needs in the community?’”

Solari emphasized that Big Sky is a special place, pointing out how many times this was referenced by meeting attendees.

“We really have an opportunity to be a model,” she said, “and to learn from what is working and what’s not working in other mountain resort communities and to really dig in, in a very unique collaborative way here to truly preserve what is so magical and truly be the best mountain town.”

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