The proposed Bitterroot Resort, which some have said could become North America’s largest ski area, would have a major economic impact on Ravalli and Missoula counties, according to an independent report released this morning.
The Bitterroot Resort Economic Impact Analysis, conducted by the Portland-based group ECONorthwest, concludes that under the larger of the two resort proposals, the amount of additional economic activity to the study area “is large both relatively and absolutely.”
Bitterroot landowner and developer Tom Maclay has proposed to build a major resort on former ranchland that would include residential housing, lodging, commercial development, a convention center and two golf course on nearly 3,000 acres of private property. Under the larger proposal, the ski area would extend on to Forest Service land on Lolo Peak, though Maclay has yet to be granted such a permit for the highly controversial plan.
The report released today analyzes the potential impact of the larger proposal as well as a smaller resort project that is likely to proceed if Maclay does not receive Forest Service approval. Factoring in tourism, construction jobs, seasonal employment and other ancillary impacts, the report concludes that the total economic output of the larger resort, 10 years from now, would be about 3.2 percent of the total output of the entire two-county economy in 2007.
“This is a significant impact,” according to the report, which was requested by Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation and the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce.
The report predicts a generally rosy economic outlook for the region under both scenarios, while making it clear it has no opinion as to whether the project should proceed. If it does, however, the consultants predict that the total direct and secondary economic impact on the two counties will be more than $400 million in “Year 10” of the larger destination resort. Economic benefits associated with the small resort would be substantially less at about $90 million.
The authors of the report also make no conclusions about whether the economic benefits are worth the costs, including “whatever environmental and natural resource amenity might be sacrificed by converting the higher elevations of Carlton Rodge/Lolo Peak from a natural area to a ski slope, and the transportation system impacts from the additional trips generated at the resort.”
Dick King, president and CEO of the by Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation, said today that the report contained few surprises. “What it does is help to quantify the numbers and gives us some specifics to use when we’re talking about what the economic impact will be.” Now, he says, “we have the research to back up the claims.”
As for the controversial growth and development associated with project, King said there are still major hurdles to overcome, but he believes the density of the project will help to overcome fears of sprawl as far as infrastructure is concerned. “We have to get ahead of the curve when we talk about doing the right thing with growth,” he said, noting the alternative sprawl would have far greater impacts on the surrounding region.
The report alludes briefly to such growth issues: “The Resort would not directly achieve the goal of reducing rural sprawl, but it would not necessarily hurt the area’s aspirations in these endeavors either,” the authors write. “Yes, the resort will be built in what is now a rural area. But it will be a concentrated, quasi-urban development.”
Opponents of the project said today that economic impact of the project is greatly overstated in the report, in part because much of the raw data used by ECONorthwest came directly from the resort itself.
“The numbers on consumer spending came from Bitterroot Resort and were supplemented with data from Vail,” said Steve Seninger, an economist at the University of Montana and member of Friends of Lolo Peak. “It’s a real stretch of the imagination to compare this region with Vail.”
Seninger said that the predicted consumer spending figure of $110 million at Year 10 represents between one-half and one-third of all current tourist spending in Ravalli and Missoula counties. “That’s a huge baseline number.”
Seninger also criticized the predicted construction jobs that would be created by the resort, saying the number cited in the report represents about one-third of all construction jobs in the two counties. Such a number would make it necessary to bring in workers from outside the region, limited any economic benefit to local residents.
MAEDC and the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce will host an informational meeting this evening at 7 p.m. in the conference room of the Montana Technology Enterprise Center, 1121 E. Broadway. In addition, the public has until November 19th to comment on the report.