Contested applicants defend projects in final review
By Bella Butler EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – Approximately 60 people gathered virtually on Zoom on the evening of June 10 to hear final discussion and decision on resort tax funding allocation from the Big Sky Resort Area District board. Forty-four of the 48 projects received full funding out of the roughly $7 million total allocation, but a few high-dollar requests were met with board and public resistance.
Leading up to the June 7 and 10 application review meetings, many individuals submitted public comment critical of marketing and management organization Visit Big Sky’s requests, one of which was a $556,215 ask for destination marketing. Board directors said they received similar input when soliciting feedback from community members on this year’s applications.
“I understand that the [Big Sky Chamber of Commerce] and Visit Big Sky have a very important role to play and the destination marketing does impact our ability to offset the effect of development,” said 21-year Big Sky resident Dick Fast, who shared his comment during the June 7 meeting. “But I think right now we’re in a very difficult transition period with very increased visitation and a lot of development and infrastructure that’s not keeping up with it.” Virtual attendees wrote into the meeting with resounding agreement to Fast.
New Chamber and VBS CEO Brad Niva, who was just days into his new role at the time of the review meetings, returned on June 10 after the board had made a preliminary decision to cut the destination marketing project by more than half. He shared with the board that since the first meeting, VBS had canceled a marketing contract and was focusing on “revenue positive” projects.
Niva said that he intends to change the vernacular surrounding Visit Big Sky as a Destination Marketing Organization. In following national trends, Niva said VBS will transition to a Destination Management Organization with a focus on managing tourism.
“This is a fundamental shift of how our office has been managed and we’ll be concentrating on stewardship of our community and working hard delivering a first-class destination experience for visitors while respecting the needs of our residents,” he said.
Niva added that timed with his arrival, the more-than 50 percent cut to VBS’ allocation is “manageable,” but he hopes it won’t set a precedent for resort tax funding for tourism promotion. In total, VBS was allocated $450,276 and the Chamber was allocated $321,507.
The Big Sky Community Housing Trust applied for funding for four projects, including $1.1 million for the acquisition of land to be earmarked for a future workforce housing project. The Trust did not identify details, such as what land they hoped to purchase, and the board chose not to fund the project at this time due to lack of specificity.
Kim Beatty, counsel to BSRAD, provided legal insight on funding the Housing Trust’s vague request. “It’s my opinion that you can’t write them a blank check, you can’t take public funds and just allocate it to them with no discussion or detail about what that project is and what the parameters are,” she said.
Housing Trust Executive Director Laura Seyfang and Housing Trust Board Chair Tim Kent spoke at the June 10 meeting in opposition of the board’s decision. They discussed the importance of funding the community’s “No. 1 issue” and the message the board was sending by choosing not to fund the land acquisition.
“I think to kind of take a pass on it at this point in time and just set this aside without being specific towards us is not advancing our solution to the to the cause at all,” Kent said, referring to board’s choice to place extra funds in their reserve rather than fund the future development project.
“…By not committing funds to making the next land purchase, I think is a really big mistake for our community,” Seyfang said.
Board members assured the applicants that housing was a top priority for them. “I personally am a huge, huge supporter of housing,” said Board Chair Kevin Germain. “It is our No. 1 community issue. I just right now would like to put that money in reserve, form a subcommittee to iron out the details of the Housing Trust and see how we can continue to help…”
The board elected to provide $500,000 to the Housing Trust’s RiverView Apartments, a workforce housing project that has already received $1.4 million in resort tax funding. The Trust’s operations were fully funded at $140,000, but the board cut their $130,000 request for a new program incentivizing homeowners to rent to locals in half to “see if it works,” according to Board Vice Chair Sarah Blechta.
Nearly 92 percent of the other 48 projects were fully funded, including several conservation and recreation projects, social services, infrastructure projects and three-year operations for entities including the Big Sky Fire Department, Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office, Big Sky Transportation District and the Gallatin Canyon Water and Sewer District, all of which can legally enter into an interlocal agreement with BSRAD. The board had $503,438 available at the end of of allocations to place in their reserve fund, which currently sits just under $1.5 million.
The Resort Area District also piloted a scoring system this allocation cycle, which judged all projects on criteria related to collaboration, efficiency and planning. Though decisions weren’t based solely on the scores this year, board members said it was helpful in providing objective insight.
“I think it’s been a very significant step with benefit to our organization and the community,” said Board Treasurer Steve Johnson.
Following this allocation cycle, the Big Sky Resort Area District is seeking feedback from the public on this process. To provide feedback, complete the survey. Find a complete breakdown of FY22 awards here.