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Big Sky, Past and Future

Moonlight Foreclosure Leaves Big Sky in Limbo

Creating a major new ski-and-golf resort is no easy trick - there have only been two in the United States in the last 20 years - and for a while it seemed that Moonlight Basin, opened in 2003, had made it over the proverbial hump.

Moonlight’s vision of building a comparatively eco-conscious resort, one where wildlife could roam unencumbered and construction was concentrated in a few core areas while leaving lots of open space, seemed to be right for the times. The real estate sales that would fund much of the development looked solid at the outset. The settlement of a bitter conflict with Big Sky Resort, it's neighbor on the other side of Lone Peak, appeared to create a great opportunity in jointly marketing the two resorts as the "Biggest Skiing in America."

But Moonlight, like so many big development projects across the West, was not equipped to handle a sudden collapse of the real estate business, and the radical shift in the credit markets that went along with it. When lot and home sales stalled last year, Moonlight stopped making payments on more than $100 million in loans while it frantically sought a buyer. The resort's long financial emergency culminated earlier this month in a foreclosure lawsuit by its primary lender, the now-bankrupt Lehman Bros.

Lee Poole, Moonlight's owner, says Lehman has assured him that it will provide the money to keep the resort open while the long-term financing and ownership issues are resolved - a process that could take a year or more. One way or another, Moonlight will almost certainly survive in some form - and its fate will have a big impact on how Big Sky evolves as a resort community. Read More »

Big Sky Resort Still Growing Up

Ever since TV newsman Chet Huntley created it almost forty years ago, Big Sky Resort has been something of an anomaly in the ski industry. Unlike Aspen or Telluride or Crested Butte or Park City, there is no old mining town to anchor the development and give it historic resonance and flair. Unlike Vail or Squaw Valley or the big resorts of the east, there is no big metropolis a few hours away.

But unlike old-line Montana community ski areas such as Bridger Bowl or Snowbowl or Lost Trail, Big Sky has big terrain and big aspirations, and with next-door Moonlight Basin, it now markets itself as “The Biggest Skiing in America.”

With the economy in a deep funk, though, Big Sky Resort also faces big challenges – and how it addresses them will help determine whether Big Sky as a whole becomes a fixture among elite destination resorts, or just an out-of-the-way oddity with good powder and a lot of fancy second homes. Read More »

Of Myth and Money at the Yellowstone Club

On a recent tour of the Yellowstone Club, the now-infamous private ski resort near Big Sky, Montana, my tour guide gestured out the window of the SUV. “This is the Taj Mahal of Tim Blixseth,” he said as the gargantuan $100 million Warren Miller Lodge slid into view. While the original Taj Mahal was built in Agra, India, as an enduring symbol of love, the Warren Miller Lodge apparently took its notes from the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. When compared side by side, these two building share striking commonalities: builders with sizeable egos, high-profile divorces and difficult bankruptcy proceedings. Their oversized décor and glitz created a mirage of riches while masking less lustrous behind-the-scenes activity. At the Warren Miller Lodge, however, it appears that the spirit of Montana is gaining the upper hand. The motion sensors operating the immense entrance doors have been switched off. The bears, smart creatures that they are, had been taking advantage of the technology to wander freely into the lodge. Keeping out the uninvited was a key feature touted by Tim and Edra Blixseth when they opened the Yellowstone Club in 1999. In what is now common lore, the property, acquired in part via a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service, was originally tagged to become the Blixseths’ personal vacation retreat until the plans snowballed into a massive real estate development. Now, in the wake of a tumultuous bankruptcy that resulted in the sale of the club and left the Blixseths (now divorced) facing a veritable mountain of legal and financial claims, a new chapter is opening for the spectacular 13,400 acre property. But to see where the club might go from here, it’s useful to consider where it has been -- and how the myth of the Blixseths snowballed out of control. Read More »

New High School a Triumph for Big Sky

When Big Sky residents gather Monday to celebrate the opening of the new Lone Peak High School, it will mark the culmination of an arduous campaign to create an institution that could change the nature of the community. No longer will Big Sky teenagers be subject to the hour-long drive along windy, dangerous Highway 191 to get to school in Bozeman. No longer will families be faced with the unpleasant choice of moving away, home schooling, or putting their kids on the bus nine months of the year. So many chose the former that the issue threatened to stunt the evolution of Big Sky. “It’s a weird culture to live in a world in which there are no teenagers,” said Barbara Rowley, a long-time resident and secretary of a non-profit organization called Friends of Big Sky Education. Rowley and her group helped raise funds, garner local support and address the daunting legal and political obstacles to building a new high school. Read More »

Scientists See Landslide Risk in Big Sky

It’s the spectacular mountains that make Big Sky, Montana what it is, but geologists worry that they’re less solid than they seem. The shale formations in many parts of Big Sky are susceptible to landslides, and many houses have been built in areas that could start moving if there’s a period of exceptionally wet weather. And because Big Sky lies within the Intermountain Seismic Belt—the part of the intermountain west with the highest earthquake potential—risk of sudden landslides is that much greater. In 1959, an earthquake with a 7.5 magnitude struck part of Madison Valley, about 30 miles south of the Big Sky-Moonlight Basin area, triggering a landslide that killed 28 people. After damming a section of the Madison River, this event coined the name “Quake Lake.” How developers, brokers and home buyers in Big Sky deal with the landslide risk is all over the map. In many cases buyers are aware of the problem and invest in engineering solutions, but in other cases they’re in the dark. As reported on NewWest.Net, a recently settled lawsuit against the Spanish Peaks development alleged that known risks were not disclosed, and that the sales staff was told to “baffle them with BS” if people asked about the issue. Geological surveys and soil-sampling are generally required as part of the subdivision approval process, but those reports are not always shared with buyers. In the accompanying video story, several experienced geologists discuss their concerns. Read More »

Big Sky Pushes Limits of Do-It-Yourself Government

There is no Montana town like Big Sky. Actually, to be a tad more literal, there is no Montana town called Big Sky. Officially, Big Sky the town doesn’t exist. Conspiracy theory? No. Big Sky does exist, but as those who have lived and worked there the longest will be quick to tell you, as a community, not a town. And in Big Sky, there is a big difference between those two words. It’s the difference between its past as a recreational oasis for second home owners from all around the country, and its present as home to a more traditional cast of locals who live and work there year-round: teachers, firefighters, business owners. The issue of incorporation – whether Big Sky the community should become Big Sky the town, complete with a mayor, town council, boundaries and taxes – has sprung up and died down every once in a while since Big Sky Resort was carved from a remote mountain valley almost 40 years ago. But the debate has become more heated in recent years: as the makeup of Big Sky’s community changes, many are wondering whether it’s time for Big Sky’s rules to change along with it. Read More »

Big Sky, Past and Future

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For a couple of decades after Chet Huntley opened Big Sky Resort in 1973, the Southwest Montana ski destination was an odd anomaly – not quite developed enough to compete with the Vails and Aspens of the world, not quite big enough and charming enough to have a strong sense of place, and not quite close enough to anything to be a likely spot for intensive real estate development. But over the past ten years, all that has changed. The opening of Lone Mountain Tram in 1995 put Big Sky on the map as a must-visit for serious Rocky Mountain skiers. The development of Moonlight Basin added diversity and critical mass to the skiing and other recreation opportunities – and a lot of nice property to the second-home market. The launch of the Yellowstone Club in 1999 brought cachet, rich people, and lots of attention (some good, and some not so good). When the global real estate bubble began to inflate in 2003, Big Sky exploded. Home values tripled over the following four years, and contractors and tradesmen – some 5,000 a day at the peak – flooded in from Bozeman and elsewhere to build condos, commercial centers, and ultra-fancy houses for the ultra-rich. The Meadow Village and the Town Center and the Mountain Village – the three separate commercial complexes in the valley – remained modest by big-time resort standards, but with more jobs, more people and more money, Big Sky was growing up. Read More »

Everlands Meltdown Leaves Montana’s Lone Mountain Ranch in Limbo

In 2007, with the mountain real estate boom still in full swing, Bob and Vivian Schaap, the long-time owners of the iconic Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Mont., decided it was time to sell. After vetting several prospective buyers, they reached a deal with a nascent luxury vacation club called Everlands, which promised to keep the historic property intact even as they transformed it into a mostly members-only resort. But the ink was barely dry on the $16 million deal when the real estate market went south, taking Everlands and virtually the entire luxury vacation club industry along with it. Today, the Lone Mountain Ranch is open for business as usual. But its owner, saddled with at least $40 million in debt, is all but out of business, and the future of Lone Mountain Ranch and four other Everlands properties is by no means assured. Read More »

History Lives at Lone Mountain Ranch

Since it was homesteaded in 1915, the Lone Mountain Ranch has been a great asset to Big Sky, Mont. Throughout the last near-century, the property has been used in many different ways -- working ranch, camps of various kinds, and, for the last thirty years, a much-beloved guest ranch. Although there has been some recent question as to what will happen to the Lone Mountain Ranch in the wake of the economic slump and the virtual collapse of its new owner, Everlands Inc., the ranch has continued in much the same way as it has for decades. This video story depicts Lone Mountain Ranch's rich history from the early 1900's to the present, and includes an interviews with previous owners Bob and Vivian Schaap, current LMR employees, and historical photos. Read More »