Letter to the Editor: Locals: Celebrate Big Sky, support our visitors during this time of growth

A word from Visit Big Sky
Big Sky, born a ski resort in 1973, is no longer solely an alpine destination for winter outdoor enthusiasts. Rather, it has become a special place that an ever-increasing number of us chose to call home. We get to live where others vacation. But with that comes unique challenges.

To our locals, 

This letter is to you. We want you to know that YOU matter. YOU make Big Sky what it is. Without YOU, who are we? 
A year ago, many of you participated in our Big Sky Place DNATM destination branding study conducted by Destination Think! to help us better understand what makes Big Sky unique. If we don’t know who we are, who YOU are, how can we attract visitors and deliver on their experience? 
Here’s what you said to us: 
“Incredible skiing, small-town feel nestled away in one of the most beautiful places.” 
“A sense of remoteness and extremely safe and welcoming community. Living among animals and the outdoors with neighbors in a true little community.” 
“The sweetest little human experiment in the midst of a wilderness!” 
“An area of beautiful and accessible country that is well-known for its outdoor recreation in all seasons... The value of clean air, clean waters, and distant unobstructed views is therapeutic for us all. This land and experience should also be cherished and nurtured by our community.” 
We as a community have so much to be grateful for: Our special place on the wild outskirts of Yellowstone National Park—our consistent snowfall and The Biggest Skiing in America® in our backyard—and our sense of community. 
These are all factors contributing to the positive economic activity unfolding now in Big Sky—an increase in residency in Big Sky and Bozeman, increased access to Big Sky via 30 percent more air seats and lower fares into Bozeman, and increased awareness and demand for Big Sky as a tourist destination. 
Many who consider themselves Big Sky locals actually live in the greater Gallatin Valley—Belgrade and Bozeman—the fastest growing micropolitan area in the U.S. Fifty percent of our workforce commutes in daily from these towns. They are a part of our community. We’re all seeing more and more people moving their families to Southwest Montana, and when they get here, they choose to embrace Big Sky, contributing to our in-state visitation. 
Last year Mother Nature blessed us with snow when places like Colorado and Utah had practically none, and that shined a spotlight on our world-class ski hill. This generated a lot of positive word-of-mouth—which is driving visitation upward but also facilitating on-mountain improvements. The addition of the IKON and Mountain Collective pass products this season is a fraction of this growth.
But let’s take a moment to look more closely at what’s really contributing to Big Sky’s increased popularity among skiers worldwide and in general: It’s the snow, it’s Lone Mountain, but even more so, it’s Montana’s authenticity, and it’s Big Sky’s respect for people and place, its friendliness and its quality of life. 
Our new visitors coming here to ski are not to blame for the pressures we can all see on our community’s infrastructure. Instead, it is the cumulation of all these things, in parallel with our community trying to keep up with building a sustainable mountain town one block at a time.
One segment of our community that is thriving this season is our small businesses, who for years have struggled to make it in Big Sky. Their financial stability will lead to wage growth and more reliable employment for our workforce. So please be tolerant of our restaurants filled by feasting guests with the understanding a period of shoulder-season famine is just around the corner. Visit Big Sky is working to flatten out the peaks and valleys of our destination’s seasonality, but for the time being we are grateful for the bounty. 
Big Sky, born a ski resort in 1973, is no longer solely an alpine destination for winter outdoor enthusiasts. Rather, it has become a special place that an ever-increasing number of us chose to call home. We get to live where others vacation. But with that comes unique challenges.
Tourism, however, remains the lifeblood of our community. Its positive impact and the monies derived from our visitor economy as illustrated by the nearly 200 percent growth in resort tax collections from $2.3 million to $6.7 million over the past decade, cannot be overlooked. Without it we would not be able to live here. Resort towns need guests—our guests don’t need us—they can always choose to go elsewhere. 
Resort tax dollars have enabled us to be awarded a $10.3 M federal TIGER Grant, which will result in road improvements and turn lanes along Lone Mountain Trail to relieve vehicular congestion.
Four new Skyline buses will better serve our in-commuting workforce, and a pedestrian tunnel under Little Coyote East as well as a pedestrian bridge to the Community Park will safely connect areas of our community for those on foot and bike. In June of this year, we will hold a ribbon-cutting for our first community housing development for our workforce, Meadowview II with 52 deed-restricted units, and a newly created Down Payment Assistance Program now exists to help our workforce buy their own homes. 
It’s clear we’re just getting started improving life for Big Sky locals. Our high school is only 10 years old. In December, our hospital celebrated its third birthday and just two years ago we installed our second stoplight. These are all milestones in our march toward becoming a sustainable community, all made possible thanks in part to tourism. Each highlights how our infrastructure investment is struggling to keep up with our sense of place, purpose and common cause. 
With or without our recent influx of new visitors, Big Sky will continue to experience growing pains and that’s why we need everyone’s input to address the challenges we face and to embrace the opportunities presented by this growth. 
In February, the Big Sky Resort Area District initiated a Community Strategic Visioning process – “Our Big Sky” – with one-on-one interviews, Pints & Polaroids events at local watering holes, and the introduction of an online survey. The resulting plan from this process will guide future development. It will plan for, prioritize and determine funding for critical capital improvement projects and strategic investments within Big Sky over the next 10 years. 
We get it: change is hard. Growth comes with growing pains. But the backlash against our visitors in person and on social media doesn’t represent the welcoming Montana spirit that’s helped make Big Sky one of the world’s best destinations. This behavior is channeling frustrations surrounding the progress on what we all want to achieve: more community housing, expanded water and sewer services, roads and bus capacity, and the protection of our pristine alpine environment. We must rise above the negative comments as we strive to create a world-class resort community that values its locals and its visitors as much as the natural amenities drawing people to our destination. 
Visit Big Sky, as the official destination management and marketing organization representing Big Sky’s outdoor recreation tourism ecosystem, we recognize the economic impacts of tourism. However, as a non-profit serving the greater good in representing the destination, we also understand the need to balance those objectives with the cultural, social and environmental ones held by our community. 
Please go to www.OurBigSkyMT.comand #iambigsky on Facebook to engage constructively. There are so many positive ways to let your voice be heard. Let’s come together to create an Our Big Sky Community Vision—that means we need YOU who make up our community—to contribute to the process. Please embrace tourism and our visitors. Just as there is no destination branding without YOU, without them, there is no destination. 

Respectfully, 
The Visit Big Sky team
Candace Carr Strauss, CEO, TEAM Big Sky and Visit Big Sky Board of Directors
Ryan Hamilton, Big Sky Town Center – Board President Dan Martin, Karst Stage – Vice President Tim Drain, Natural Retreats Big Sky – Secretary/Treasurer Justin Bain, CrossHarbor Capital Partners
Julie Grimm-Lisk, Gallatin Riverhouse Grill/Jake’s Horses Ryan Kunz, Lone Mountain Ranch Annie Pinkert, Big Sky Resort Krista Traxler, Yellowstone Club Ennion Williams, Big Sky Trout 

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