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Town Hall panelists discuss thoughtful, logical reopening

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During the eighth installment of Big Sky Town Hall, panelists spoke of a safe, Phase 1 reopening, particularly of the travel industry and the hardships it has faced in the past and how it compares to the current COVID-19 crisis.

Guests included Brian Sprenger, airport director at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport; Taylor Middleton, president and CEO of Big Sky Resort; Kirsten King, owner of Big Sky Vacation Rentals; Daniel Bierschwale, executive director of the Big Sky Resort Tax; and Jeremy Harder, lead facilitator of creativity and innovation at the Big Sky School District.

Sprenger said the airport’s air traffic in April was 3.1 percent of normal, taking them back about 50 years. However, he said they’ve so far experienced a slow recovery in May and was overall optimistic about the future of the airport he’s been at the helm of since 2009.

“We’ll come out well on the backside, we just don’t know when that’ll be,” he said.

All inbound passengers are being screened with temperature checks by the National Guard. The airport also uses sneeze guards and is practicing social distancing in the terminals. Most airlines, with the exception of Allegiant, are requiring all passengers to wear face coverings. Sprenger said this could be a new normal for some time, at least through the summer.

Middleton said he’s ready to get the community back in business, generate revenue and restart the economy. The resort is kicking off Phase 1 of their reopening starting with the golf course on May 22, followed by  mountain biking later in June once the snow melts. He said the pandemic interrupted one of Big Sky’s largest capital improvement projects, which included additions to the Ramcharger 8 lift and major renovations to the Swift Current lift, which have both delayed until next summer. He remains optimistic about summer events such as the Rut Mountain Runs.

Middleton said getting Big Sky’s economic engine going is “the most important thing we want to focus on now.” He spoke of “thinner” staffing models tuned to revenue projections and their inability to house as many employees in the resort’s housing due to contagion prevention.

King, no stranger to serving out-of-state visitors, said that although this season is usually quiet for vacation rentals anyway, occupancy hit a low in March when Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home order went into place. Her team, a majority of whom are local Big Sky residents, have come up with creative ways to serve their homeowners and get through this time together as they prepare to welcome visitors back to Big Sky when it is safe to do so.

Bierschwale, who also serves on the Big Sky Relief board, says the organization has recently shifted to planning for long-term needs of those affected by the pandemic as the community moves toward recovery. Two million dollars has been committed to the fund, helping to secure ventilators as well as grants to individuals and families. With allocated funds from Big Sky’s resort tax, they’ve allocated funds toward wastewater surveillance, a project in partnership with the Gallatin City-County Health Department and Montana State University that tests viral loads in the area’s sewer system.

The Town Hall capped  the evening with some light banter between 20-year Big Sky local Jeremy Harder and moderator Joseph T. O’Connor in Harder’s classroom—a safe, six feet apart (tape measure included). 

“I learned that I can’t plan way ahead, which I think is beneficial. It has to be organic,” said Harder of the changing face of education through the pandemic. He also spoke of teaching with grace and patience and how much he misses having a full classroom.

“I think 70 percent of a classroom is building a relationship with the students. It’s hard to engage doing what we’re doing right now,” said Harder. “It’s a challenge to not be in the room with someone, to feel what they’re feeling. You lose that aspect and that’s so huge in education.”

He hopes next fall his students can come back and that from this teachers can make learning more authentic. Speaking true to his title, he hopes this experience at least makes for a more innovative future for kids.

Harder and O’Connor closed out the night by congratulating the class of 2020 graduates who will be “walking” in a part-drive-through, part-virtual ceremony this coming Saturday.

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