How Big Sky is tackling growth.
Still a relatively new place, Big Sky Resort was founded in the early 1970s by famed NBC broadcast news- man Chet Huntley and purchased by Boyne Resorts in 1976 after Huntley’s untimely death. It was a pretty quiet ski area until the Lone Peak Tram was installed in 1995. Beyond a bit of seasonal work bumping chairs or teaching skiing, there weren’t enough jobs to create an employee housing crisis. In the early 2000s, new development projects sprung up around Big Sky Resort including the Yellowstone Club, Spanish Peaks, and Moonlight Basin, but the financial crisis of the late 2000s slowed growth considerably in the area for a time.
As is the nature of things, Big Sky was “found”—slowly, and then seemingly all at once. Stable ownership of the larger development projects created accelerated demand for the area. Winter visitation was further accelerated by Big Sky Resort’s popularity with IKON passholders and the resort’s significant investments in lift infra- structure as part of the Big Sky 2025 vision. Today, Big Sky resides amongst the pantheon of North American destination ski resorts alongside Jackson Hole, Aspen, Vail, and Whistler Blackcomb. And Big Sky is no longer just a ski town. In summer, nearby Yellowstone National Park has seen annual visitor increases top 10 percent over the past five years. There’s nothing quite like this region in North America—and that’s no longer a secret. The demand for visitation has impacted the local housing market, with over 1,000 units having been converted from employee and community housing to short-term rental housing over the last four years.
While Big Sky has a “Town Center,” it is not a town. Big Sky is still an unincorporated area straddling two different counties, creating both unique challenges and opportunities for addressing local issues. Big Sky isn’t immune to the struggles facing other mountain towns and ski resorts of North America, including hous- ing, environmental and other community concerns. But challenges can also be seen as opportunities. And nowhere is that more true than in Big Sky, which still has time to shape its future.
In late 2019, community members and leaders throughout Big Sky came together with funding from the Big Sky Resort Area District (BSRAD) to draft “Our Big Sky,” the community vision and strategy for articulating the needs and priorities of the community’s growth—focusing on “Our People, Our Character, Our Recrea- tion, and Our Natural Environment.”
BASE, Big Sky’s community and recreation center. Photograph by Joe Esenther.
Big Sky locals enjoying life in Town Center. Photograph by Justine Jane.
Trails and trail access are a big part of Big Sky’s future. Photograph by Jonathan Finch.
“Where there is growth, there are growing pains. The entire community needs to come together to address these issues.” —Matt Kidd, Managing Director at Lone Mountain Land Company.
“Lone Mountain Land Company strives to create a place where people look after one another and the environment and we are proud to partner with lo- cal public and private entities to bring this plan to fruition over the coming years. Where there is growth, there are growing pains,” says Matt Kidd, Man- aging Director at Lone Mountain Land Company (LMLC). “The entire com- munity needs to come together to address these issues now and be proactive with the decisions that will affect the community in the coming years. We did not start these development projects, but we plan to complete them in ways that create a lasting legacy and have positive impacts on this community.”
All parties of the Big Sky community are involved in that effort, but one of the biggest contributors has been the membership of the private clubs. Yellowstone Club, Spanish Peaks Mountain Club, and Moonlight Basin all feature Community Foundations working to address the challenges of moun- tain living through philanthropic investments. The foundations are invest- ing millions of dollars in the Big Sky community annually, including larger initiatives such as the BASE community center and Big Sky Relief (Big Sky’s response to the COVID pandemic), as well as providing funding for numerous other local nonprofits including the Big Sky Community Food Bank, Big Sky Medical Center, and the area schools. Such initiatives only work because of the caliber of owners and members who have the capacity and desire to give back and make Big Sky a better place to work and live. Combined, the three Community Foundations represent the largest donor to the Housing Trust’s Down Payment Assistance Program, which has paved the way for many locals to own homes.
On the housing front alone, since 2017, LMLC has constructed 78 long-term rental units (120 beds) in Big Sky Town Center, ranging from studio apart- ments to five-bedroom townhomes. All of the units are currently leased to lo- cal families, local businesses (for their employees), and couples or roommates who work locally.
Moreover, as destination resorts throughout the Intermountain West have moved decisively to address the housing crunch, so has LMLC. In 2020, Lone Mountain Land Company formed a new business division to create workforce housing for the Big Sky community. With more than $250 million of new investment, the projects will comprise over 1,000 new units and 3,000 beds of new housing upon completion. And LMLC is not working alone, rather in collaboration with the Big Sky Community Housing Trust. In addition to philanthropic support, the Big Sky Community Housing Trust is funded in part by the local Resort Tax, which has grown from $3.1 million in annual collections in 2013, to over $12 million today.
A new building on Town Center Avenue featuring retail, dining, and residential units. Photograph by Zakara Photography.
“It’s crucial to develop housing based on need,” says Bayard Dominick, Vice President of Planning & Design at Lone Mountain Land Company. “Just as with any new construction, new workforce housing has to navigate issues of land availability, construction costs, financing sources, zoning constraints, and sewer, water, and other infrastructure considerations. But ultimately, any new housing supply that’s available to the local workforce will have a positive impact.”
Of course, housing is but one challenge associated with growth. And the com- munity foundations of Spanish Peaks, Moonlight Basin, and Yellowstone Club, are working to address many different community issues. Across the Intermountain West, mental health services have failed to keep step with booming populations. It can be hard to see because of the beauty of the surrounding landscapes and the thrill of mountain sports, but mountain communities everywhere are strug- gling. Challenges to mental health include high costs of living, geographic and Covid-related isolation, long winters bookended by uneventful ‘shoulder’ seasons, transient social networks, a culture of heavy drinking and substance abuse, and even political divisiveness.
“Long before we were hit by the complex stressors of the pandemic, support for mental and behavioral health topped evaluations of need in our commu- nity,” said Ciara Wolfe, Vice President of Philanthropy for the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation. To address this hidden crisis, the YCCF is coordinating an initiative called the Big Sky Behavioral Health Coalition. To date, the coalition has invested nearly $800,000 to support behavioral health and wellness initiatives in Big Sky and supported 13 nonprofit organizations operating here. “The pandemic’s impact over the past 19 months intensified those needs and catalyzed our efforts,” says Wolfe.
Recently, the three foundations, with additional community members, have joined forces to create Elevate Big Sky, a new framework that will provide a platform and process for the community’s myriad of organizations to work more closely together to achieve results in addressing community needs in- cluding housing, livability, and environmental concerns.
And then there are the campaigns to protect what brought all the growth in the first place—Big Sky’s unique and treasured landscape and ecology. The Big Sky Community Organization (BSCO) is working with large landowners in town, like LMLC and Big Sky Resort, to create trail easements. The com- munity now has the opportunity to connect the mountain to the meadow and the meadow to the canyon and expand on the trail networks already in place. Being proactive now to preserve open space and future access is a tenet of LMLC’s mission. “By being forward-thinking,” says Kidd, “we can preserve parks and trails so they can be enjoyed 20 or 50 years from now, and beyond.”
Naturally, none of these measures—as well-intentioned as they are in the ser- vice of community, individuals, and the environment—will ever turn back the clock. Skiers and recreationalists came for adventure and beauty. Construction and a wide-ranging service industry followed—which supports many Big Sky resident’s livelihoods. But what can still be determined is how the Big Sky com- munity shapes its future. “By supporting our collective community programs, everyone can have access to the things that they love about Big Sky,” says Kidd.