Big Mountain's new era 

As Hines pulls out, plans scaled back

Whitefish’s ski mountain/resort community, Big Mountain, will continue to expand, according to Big Mountain CEO Fred Jones, but it will do so in a manner different than previously planned.

Last week, Big Mountain and Hines resorts, the international investment firm that provided the pocketbook behind Big Mountain’s largest structure, the Morning Eagle Lodge, as well as the Northern Lights subdivision and the Glades single-family homes, announced that the two entities would no longer be doing business together.

Hines Vice President of Resorts Bob Daniel says that his company has decided to shift its focus away from real estate development, and that Big Mountain, specifically, had nothing to do with the decision.

“We’re no longer pursuing any resort development opportunities, period,” Daniel says, adding that concerns among local Whitefish residents over the rate of Big Mountain’s growth was also not a factor in the decision.

“We found the people up there to be rightfully protective of their community and environment,” Daniel says. “That happens whenever people are passionate about where they live. Our employees up there have enjoyed it and I think some will even stay and continue there,” including Hines Project Manager Bayard Domonick.

With Hines out of the picture, Big Mountain enters a new era. Instead of partnering with one large company, the resort will now look to several smaller developers. That means more work on the part of Big Mountain administrators, but also more control over what is built, says Big Mountain CEO Fred Jones, who replaced former CEO Mike Collins in April.

“This is not a Hines versus us kind of thing,” Jones says. “It comes back to our managing the process. When we sell to a developer, we’re not going to just give them a blank sheet and say ‘Go for it.’”

Even if Big Mountain is able to exercise more control over smaller developers, though, Jones points out that this doesn’t mean the mountain is scrapping its expansion plans, despite reports to the contrary, including a July 14 Missoulian article headlined, “New CEO puts brakes on Big Mountain expansion.”

“That ‘scale back’ comment was somewhat misrepresented,” Jones says. “I said that our future development will be more appropriate for where we are. But the plan is basically the same.”

That plan includes more mid-priced rentals to balance out some of the higher-cost housing at the mountain. It also includes building a $7–$9 million conference center on the land on which the beloved Bierstube bar now sits, although this plan has been tabled for the time being.

“The timing’s not right yet” for the conference center, says Jones. “We don’t currently have enough beds to support that kind of facility. But it’s a beautiful facility. We’d love to build it and we will be building meeting and conferencing spaces as we develop out.”

Jones says other plans include developing additional village condos in the “core” of the resort, townhomes and single and multi-family lots outside of the core, as well as a day lodge for skiers and a skier services building.

The main difference between the Hines plan and Big Mountain’s current plan lies in the size of the buildings.

“The Hines plan had more buildings like Morning Eagle and some even larger than that,” Jones says. “Our thought was that it was more appropriate to bring smaller-scale buildings, but that doesn’t mean we’re abandoning the concept of developing a resort village.”

As development continues, the perennial question resurfaces: How can Big Mountain develop and at the same time keep Whitefish residents comfortable with the pace of growth?

“We do surveys,” Jones says, though he admits that “not everybody’s going to agree with what we’re doing. We’re never going to attract numbers like the big ones in Aspen or Vail, but we need to figure out how to be successful at a moderate size, which is our niche.”

Even if its niche is smaller, Jones says Big Mountain’s business model is not all that different from those of Aspen and Vail.

“It differs only in what we hope to achieve as the feel of the resort,” Jones says. “It’s being true to Montana. If you live in L.A., you can get Starbucks coffee. When people come here, they come to get away from everyday life, so it ought to be an experience that is truly different than when they’re at home, with Montana Coffee Roasters and bison burgers rather than McDonald’s. It’s a look and a feel all the way through.”

As development progresses, though, the days of the ’Stube may be numbered.

“The Bierstube building probably is not salvageable,” Jones says. “I’d like to think we could replace the Bierstube at some point, because it is great. But the building is just trash, structurally. At some point, that site gets redeveloped and the Bierstube gets rebuilt somewhere else.”

The good news for local skiers, Jones says, is that as Big Mountain focuses on balancing out its clientele in the mid-price range, it’s unlikely that locals will be priced out of the market.

“We want a vibrant core village that has lots of rental beds and a big segment of that is in the mid-price range,” Jones says.

Jones expects a new development cycle to begin next summer.

mike@missoulanews.com

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