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Resort Tax allocations: Chapter one

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The BSRAD board meets every June to allocate resort tax collections to community organizations. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

Tentative funding awarded to organizations in arts & education, economic development, housing, public works 

By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER 

Jason Bacaj contributed reporting for this story 

The first of three annual public meetings took place on Monday at BASE, in which the Big Sky Resort Area District board will deliberate and vote on funding applications for fiscal year 2024.  

Big Sky nonprofits and organizations requested 52 total projects amounting to $10.7 million, and BSRAD has $9.1 million in its allocations budget from resort tax collections.   

The Big Sky Community Housing Trust requested $1.17 million between operations and its two main programs: Good Deeds and Rent Local—all were granted in full without discussion. A variety of public works projects received funding, including public bathrooms in Town Center and public library improvements—some were funded in full. On arts and education, the board granted full requests from the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center and Music in the Mountains, but contingencies and details made for tricky discussions around Morningstar Learning Center and Discovery Academy. And on economic development, the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and its marketing arm, Visit Big Sky, received different levels of funding for various projects.  

All the allocations voted on during the Monday and Tuesday evening meetings are preliminary. They will be finalized on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at BASE. On Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at BASE, the board will discuss health and safety, and recreation and conservation. 

Early in the meeting, Board Chair Sarah Blechta set the tone for a process in which some projects will inevitably not receive full funding: 

“I truly mean it when I say: none of you are getting cut tonight. Every one of you is here requesting public dollars, and we are going to do our best to make those dollars go as long and as far they can. We appreciate every matching penny that you bring to the table—we are an amazing community of people who can do things together.” 

Arts, entertainment and early childhood education 

The board began with arts and education, swiftly deciding—although not unanimously—to fully fund the Arts Council of Big Sky’s Music in the Mountains, and the WMPAC.  

Morningstar Learning Center requested $425,000 for early childhood education and tuition assistance, which was funded in full. MLC also requested $750,000 for campus expansion, citing “a critical crossroads of needing more teachers and more physical space… [MLC is] working toward building a new learning center as well as employee housing,” their application stated.  

The details of that campus expansion were not sufficient for board member Kevin Germain, who reiterated his support of funding child care but took issue with the lack of a concrete plan. 

“I don’t feel that this project is ready to move forward at this time… What I had [suggested] was $200,000, which allows them to move forward with architecture, vetting it out, and forming a fully baked plan before we commit those funds to it,” Germain explained.  

After discussion and questions for MLC’s executive director, the board voted to fully fund the campus expansion project, contingent that no funds get released until BSRAD approves a plan. Germain was the lone vote in opposition.  

Discovery Academy requested $170,000 for its early childhood program and tuition assistance. The nonprofit private school committed to adding two full-time Montessori-style classrooms for the 2023-24 school year, and the funds would be used in part “to [provide] needs-based, tuition assistance support for those families with the highest need,” according to their application.  

Board member Ciara Wolfe expressed concern:  

“Morningstar [costs] $7, and some change, for an hour of care. Discovery [costs] almost $15 an hour for care. I don’t believe we should use public dollars to inequitably fund scholarships when it is twice as expensive [for] care,” Wolfe said. She later added her belief that resort tax dollars should not be used to allow families to send their children “to a more expensive place over what’s publicly offered” because resort-tax-funded scholarships enable them to do so. 

The Big Sky School District’s 4-K program costs less than $4 per hour, according to math performed live during board discussion. That program is funded through state tax dollars.   

A series of public comments followed. The board eventually voted 3-2 to fund Big Sky Discovery Academy at $100,000, roughly 59% of its ask.  

Destination marketing and economic development 

At the outset of the economic development discussion, which dealt with the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky, Germain moved to fully fund all six requests which totaled just below $1 million. He said that with booming visitation in recent years, the board has questioned the need to spend resort tax dollars on destination marketing. 

“I do think that was very valid criticism and questions at the time. That’s changed,” Germain said. “You look at our resort tax collections, they are down. I’m worried about the cycle that we’re going into. When you look at our summer visitor projections, they’re down. I want this board to, when times are bad, we promote economic development. When times are good, we can dial it back and go toward other things. But when I look at economic development, I look at this being the support of every one of the collectors of resort tax in this community.” 

The board eventually voted to fund $807,075, roughly 83% of the $976,075 requested across the six projects.  

Early in Monday’s meeting, Wolfe explained her strategy of recommending “a safe, generous increase” of 7.5% in award amount year-over-year for the same services. During the economic development section, that principle was applied on multiple occasions.  

For Visit Big Sky’s operations, an ask of $240,000, the board voted to fund $200,000—based on the 7.5% increase from fiscal year 2023.  

Visit Big Sky asked for $275,000 for visitor marketing and events, including digital targeted marketing campaigns and “a large event that would act as a marketing draw for the community in a slow part of the season,” the application states. That ask was funded near 54%, with an award of $150,000.  

“I don’t know that I feel the community needs to invest $75,000 in any events,” Blechta said, after making a motion to fund $150,000 for that project. 

Wolfe added that through asking business owners and local workers, her view is that spring and fall seasons add an important break for work-life balance in Big Sky. Board member Grace Young agreed, and Board Treasurer Steve Johnson added his concern that customers are not interested in visiting during the shoulder season.  

Germain expressed a different opinion, which is that a year-round economy would foster a more permanent community and reduce seasonal workforce turnover. Chamber CEO Brad Niva gave public comment: 

“Currently to date, we are the lowest marketing budget of the major ski areas in the country,” Niva said. “It’s the very competitive nature of a business… We as a destination are popular right now, but are we always going to stay popular? I think we gotta keep the foot on the gas.” 

Nonetheless, the board voted 4-1 in favor of Blechta’s motion.  

Visit Big Sky’s destination research and stewardship plan, asking $230,000, was fully met. It will handle the “invisible burden” of tourism by studying visitor impact, and campaigning for respectful visitation.  

The chamber’s operations ask—$126,075—was fully met. The development of business skills programming to be accessed by businesses, asking $79,000, received $75,000 based on a 7.5% increase from 2023.  

The chamber’s workforce sustainability research effort, asking $26,000, was fully met. The project would research cost of living for mountain towns, transportation, wage data, and other points to help inform businesses with workforce-related decisions.  

New signage, public bathrooms, water works 

Projects categorized as “public works” included improved street and pedestrian signage, public bathrooms in Town Center, land acquisition for a water tank, and community library operations, programming and services, and required costs of creating a library district.  

Those asks totaled $2.37 million. In total, the board voted to fund roughly $1.6 million in public works.  

The largest ask, also met with the largest difference in funding awarded, was the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District’s $1.3 million ask for a centrifuge sludge press—the press would replace an existing belt from 2002, converting sludge from the upgraded wastewater treatment plant into compost to be sold for home landscaping. 

The board agreed to fund 60% of the sludge press, granting $780,000, and made an informal agreement that BSRAD and BSCWSD would split costs at the same ratio moving forward.  

The water and sewer district also requested $300,000 to purchase a parcel of land for a water tank, but in the past month, that land was appraised near $60,000. The request was revised so that BSRAD will fund up to $60,000 for the land.  

Visit Big Sky’s $370,000 request for public bathrooms in Town Center was fully funded. Another Visit Big Sky request for $200,000, to replace the confusing and unclear signage around Big Sky’s roads and pedestrian areas, was fully funded but with the contingency that no money go toward LED signs.  

This series of street signs will be replaced by Visit Big Sky in an effort to improve visitor experience and create uniformity across the canyon, mountain and meadow regions of Big Sky. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

Friends of the Big Sky Community Library requested $79,000 for operations. Based on Wolfe’s 7.5% year-over-year growth principle, the library was awarded $71,500. The same principle brought the $76,000 programming and services ask down to an award of $67,000.  

“Creating a library district and becoming a public library in Big Sky is a foundational step to moving the library into town,” states the FOBSCL request for $45,000 to fund “library district preparation and ballot.” That project was fully funded, and will pay for a consultant and the costs of spreading information before Big Sky voters decide on a public library district.  

Housing: an issue beyond discussion 

The Big Sky Community Housing Trust requested $800,000 to help create permanent deed-restrictions for worker-occupied homes, through the Good Deeds program. Another $225,000 was requested for housing trust operations, and $150,000 for the Rent Local program which pays homeowners who rent to full-time workers.  

All three asks were funded in full.  

“Number one need in our community, hasn’t changed, and it won’t for a while. And my only disappointment is not [funding] them more. So can’t wait for you to come with bigger projects” Germain said. 

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