On Saturday, March 14, 2020, it was evident that things were getting real regarding COVID-19 reaching Big Sky. The resort had not yet announced it was closing, but other resorts around the Rocky Mountains were.
Kevin Germain, Big Sky Resort Area District Board Chairperson, and Danny Bierschwale, Big Sky Resort Area District, saw the writing on the wall. That day, they had multiple calls with the attorney representing the tax board. The local resort tax has been in existence since the 1990s and helps local non-profits and government entities in Big Sky. Since its inception, the tax is collected throughout the year, and the funds distributed in June. The two men wanted to know if they could do things differently this year and distribute a portion earlier to respond swiftly to the pandemic. As it turned out, they had quite a bit of flexibility and could tap into the money they had already collected. The wheels were in motion.
On Sunday, March 15, 2020, Big Sky Resort announced they would be closing the following day. Germain reached out to the Yellowstone Club, Moonlight, and Spanish Peaks Community Foundations and started discussing how they could offer aid to the community.
By Friday, March 20, the Resort Tax Board approved putting $1,000,000 toward the relief effort. They agreed to allocate $500,000 to the Big Sky Medical Center and $500,000 to other social needs in the community. By that afternoon, the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation contributed half a million dollars, and Moonlight and Spanish Peaks Community Foundations each committed a quarter of a million. One week from the time talks started, the relief fund grew to $2 million, and a robust collaboration was in place.
At this point, community leaders were well aware of what happened in Sun Valley and other ski areas. They anticipated a significant surge in COVID-19 cases in Big Sky due to the number of travelers visiting the area. After a week of talks with Big Sky Medical Center and an understanding of their needs, the group allocated $1 million to finish four hospital rooms, purchase ventilators, an analyzer for testing, and a lot of PPE. The needs totaled just over $1 million, the majority of it covered through the relief fund.
Typically, resort tax funding goes to numerous entities. This year, 28 organizations applied for resort tax dollars, ranging from the fire department and Sheriff's department to the food bank. Resort tax dollars can only go to non-profits and government entities, but the money from the foundations has fewer restrictions. As such, they have been able to give out close to $200,000 in grants to help local families to help them through this period.
But the relief efforts didn't stop there. The business community had to shut down 3-5 weeks early, and two of those weeks were significant for revenues. They were going to need help. The Relief Fund organizers sent an email to the 28 entities that had received money asking if they had any remaining resort tax funds and could give them back to support the effort. These non-profit and government entities stepped up and gave back another $400,000 of funds not yet spent.
The Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, an incredibly active organization, quickly joined the conversation about how to help the business community. They had $210,000 of unspent resort tax funds they offered to return to the relief effort. However, Big Sky Relief told them to keep the money and re-purpose it. The Chamber created the Big Sky Save Small Business Relief Fund, a micro-grant program for the businesses. To date, the fund has given grants to 57 small businesses totaling $192,500 of the $210,000. The remainder of the money will go toward re- opening bundles for businesses, including masks, gowns, hand sanitizer, signage, and plexiglass. They also facilitated a volunteer-staffed hotline to help walk the business owners through applying for aid through the federal stimulus package.
The group recently funded a study testing wastewater for Covid-19 to keep tabs on the presence of the virus and ease mitigation efforts.
"Everybody's trying to come together during this time of need and work very collaboratively to help our community out," Germain said. "Big Sky doesn't have a city government or mayor; people jump in and get things done. It's all bootstrapped and utilizes a lot of volunteer boards to make things happen. Everybody's just jumping in and doing what needs to be done."
What's next? Germain explains, "Our economy is 100% tourism-driven, yet we need to protect our residents' health and safety. The county line goes right through the area, so we are in conversations with both Madison and Gallatin County Health Departments about how to put together robust testing, tracing, and monitoring programs to open again." He says, "At this point, we need more testing and more contact tracers."
For updates on current relief efforts, or for ways you can help, go to bigskyrelief.org.