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Wisconsin developer to upend Big Sky business

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Burcalow gives Corral until June 15

By Joseph T. O’Connor Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

BIG SKY – The Corral Bar, Steakhouse and Motel has been a mainstay for Big Sky locals and travelers alike for nearly 70 years. Now, stemming from an obscure 1999 U.S. Forest Service land deal, The Corral may have to shut its doors.

Larry Burcalow, a Wisconsin developer who owns approximately two acres adjacent to the business where The Corral’s water sanitation system sits, is asking $400,000 for the land that last month appraised for $58,300, according to a letter from Corral attorney Arthur V. Wittich of Bozeman, and obtained by EBS on June 5.

In a response letter, the developer’s attorney Michael J. Lilly rejected The Corral’s offer and gave the business until June 15 to remove encroachments on the property. Repeated phone calls to Burcalow and his lawyers for comment were not returned.

Located approximately five miles south of Big Sky on Highway 191, The Corral sees between 50,000 and 80,000 customers a year and employs 35-40 workers. On any given evening, the restaurant is packed with families, après ski or fishing patrons and travelers heading to or from Yellowstone National Park.

Since its establishment in 1947, The Corral has acted as a cornerstone for this small resort community and its visitors, holding benefit events for ill or injured residents as well as an annual golf tournament to benefit regional nonprofits.

But it’s seen its share of turmoil in the last 15 years. Land trades and sales, and a slew of lawsuits have plagued the business, according to co-owner Devon White.

“We’ve paid over $80,000 in attorney fees over the years,” said White who owns the business with local Dave House.

The problems began for The Corral when the Forest Service traded land behind the restaurant to a now-defunct lumber company. That land included 1.79 acres adjacent to The Corral, which the restaurant leased from the USFS through a special use permit. White and House store on that land a water sanitation system, propane tank, hot tub and storage shed.

The Corral leased the plot from the USFS until 1998, when the federal agency traded the land to the Big Sky Lumber Company, owned by Mel McDougal and former Yellowstone Club owner Tim Blixseth. The USFS then informed The Corral that the special use permit was terminated.

Blixseth and McDougal split the land, with Blixseth retaining the portion of which part would become the Yellowstone Club, and McDougal getting land closer to Highway 191, including the plot next to The Corral.

In 1999, McDougal sold that 1.79-acre plot to Burcalow Family LLC, which, White says, forced the Corral owners to sign a temporary license agreement in 2004.

“He said we had to sign the agreement or he’d sue us,” White said of Burcalow, a resident of Wisconsin. “He’s bullied his way through this entire process.”

Under this license agreement, The Corral agreed to pay Burcalow $250 per year for use of the land. But the agreement expired in 2009, and the parties could not compromise on how to move forward, according to Burcalow v. Corral Bar, filed with the Montana Supreme Court in November 2013.

Burcalow sued The Corral’s owners in 2010 for trespass. White and House countersued, galvanizing the near 15-year conflict. At stake was a five-year prescriptive easement for The Corral, which was upheld by the Montana District Court but overturned by the Supreme Court last November. The easement would have allowed the restaurant to operate on the land in question in perpetuity, based on its occupation of the property for more than five years.

“They said it was less than five years from the time Burcalow purchased [the land],” White said. “But it was five years and nine months after the Forest Service terminated the lease.”

It didn’t at first appear to White that the disagreement with Burcalow ran that deep.

“We thought we had a very good relationship with [Burcalow] in the beginning,” White said. “He used to come here a lot, but as soon as he signed the deal on that land, everything went sideways.”

In a May 23 letter obtained by EBS on June 5, Burcalow’s attorney Lilly – of Bozeman-based law firm Berg, Lilly and Tollefsen – wrote to Corral lawyers that the restaurant must remove all encroachments existing on Burcalow’s land by mid-June.

“If the signs, storage shed, hot tub … septic tank and drain field are not removed by June 15, 2014, Burcalow will cause them to be moved unless a court order prevents it from doing so,” the letter said. “The cost of these encroachments will be submitted as damages for The Corral’s trespass.”

Local community members on June 4 created a Facebook page called “Friends of the Corral in Big Sky” in an effort to raise awareness. As of 4 p.m. on June 9, it had 4,187 likes.

But likes may not stop Burcalow from carrying his plan forward, according to White, who first visited Big Sky with an Army roommate in 1971. “If he comes in here on the 15th and starts digging [stuff] up, we’re done. It’s been my life for the past 40 years. It’s just always a good time, music, dancing … It’s The Corral family.”

That family grew in spring 2013, after a local resident and her young daughter were involved in a head-on collision in the Gallatin Canyon. Karla Long and 1-year-old Emma were driving from Bozeman to Big Sky when the accident occurred. Emma was unscathed, but Karla sustained injuries that kept her from working for four months, according to her husband Dustin Long.

“The insurance we had didn’t cover what it should have, and we lost our only mode of transportation,” Dustin said. “We were in a bad financial place, but once Devon, Dave, [and bartenders] Brad [Tidwell] and Frank [Germo] heard what happened, they immediately reached out and said, ‘What can we do?’”

The Corral owners and staff, together with other local businesses, held a benefit cookout and silent auction for the Longs, who were able to pay off nearly all of the medical expenses they accrued, Dustin said.

“What those guys did for us was above and beyond. It made us feel at home.”

There have been countless such benefits over The Corral’s 67-year history. But those days could be over on June 15, when this small business may have to sacrifice to Burcalow more than it can sustain to survive.

“The bottom line is, you can’t get blood from a turnip,” White said. “He can try, but he’s bled us to death already.”

The Corral is hosting “The Last Best Dance,” a celebration of the restaurant’s tenure, featuring the band Tessy Lou and The Shotgun Stars on Friday, June 13 at 9:30 p.m.

EBS will update this story as details become available.

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