Interested parties 

Who’s backing the Bitterroot Resort study?

A new study on the potential economic impacts of the proposed Bitterroot Resort is already drawing critics’ ire…and it’s barely underway.

The publicly/privately funded “Economic Impact Study of the Bitterroot Resort on Ravalli and Missoula Counties” will attempt to “identify and evaluate major economic impacts of the proposed Bitterroot Resort,” according to a grant application for money to conduct the report. But critics say the study looks more like an attempt to use public dollars to drum up support for Bitterroot rancher Tom Maclay’s quest to build a destination ski resort on public lands.

Earlier this year officials at the Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation (MAEDC) raised $20,000 to leverage another $20,000 in matching funds from the Montana Department of Commerce through the recently created “Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund.” According to the commerce department, that trust fund “is designed to aid in the development of good paying jobs for Montana residents and promote long-term stable economic growth in Montana.”

But the study—and an official request by MAEDC to keep the private funders’ names confidential—has some resort opponents crying foul.

Critics say their main problem is the fact that the grant proposal presumes that the Bitterroot Resort will receive the required U.S. Forest Service permit to operate on public lands on Lolo Peak and Carlton Ridge, an unresolved issue that rests at the heart of the debate over the proposed resort.

“We’re concerned that they’ll use [the study] as additional pressure on the Forest Service, and try to sway public opinion,” says Daphne Herling of Friends of Lolo Peak, a conservation group opposed to the development.

Steve Seninger, a economist at the University of Montana (where he’s a colleague of Herling’s) says the study proposal indicates a focus on the “positive” economic impacts of the resort and won’t explore the full-range of impacts—positive and negative—it could have on nearby communities.

“Usually, when you do an objective study, you look at all impacts, negative and positive. My sense was it was going to be pretty biased because they were only going to look at the positive,” says Seninger.

Dick King, MAEDC president and CEO, says what the current debate lacks is objective, independent analysis of the resort’s economic potential.

“MAEDC’s board said about two years ago that we wouldn’t take any position on this. But we are interested in what kind of economic impact this might have,” says King.

King says MAEDC commissioned a similar study in 1990 when a developer proposed a ski hill on Lolo Peak off U.S. Highway 12. King says MAEDC came up with $50,000 to fund a feasibility study that found the proposal lacking.

“There was just skiing revenue available, no other amenities on public land,” King recalls, adding that officials from the Bitterroot Resort contacted MAEDC because of the organization’s involvement with the 1990 study, and offered to pay for this round of analysis.

“We turned that offer down because we felt that people would question a study funded by the resort,” says King.

So MAEDC applied for the Department of Commerce grant after securing matching funds from more than 20 local businesses and organizations. King also submitted a confidentiality agreement that would have prevented either MAEDC or the state from disclosing the names of those business and individuals.

In an affidavit supporting the need for the confidentiality agreement, Eric Hanson, MAEDC’s vice president, says the names “should be withheld from public disclosure as they are a concern regarding each business’ public safety and any potential vandalism which may result in a loss of business income.”

Herling says that claim is ridiculous.

“To me that was just an attempt to brand the people who are against developing Lolo Peak as eco-terrorists. It was just a ploy and really did tick me off,” she says.

Officials at the commerce department refused to sign the agreement. King says the request for confidentially was a routine procedure.

“We had some of the contributors on the local level who said, ‘We would prefer if our name was anonymous because we don’t want to get tied up in the issue of whether or not they should allow skiing off Lolo Peak,’” King explains. “Not all of them made that request.”

The Independent obtained a Department of Commerce e-mail that contains the names of the “entities [that] have agreed to contribute” to the study. They are: Missoula Building Industry Association, First Security Bank, Missoula Airport Authority, OZ Architects, Hutton Builders, JTL Group, Rocky Mountain Lumber, MAEDC, Missoula Downtown Association, Missoula Organization of Realtors, Bob Ward and Sons, First National Bank, Missoula Convention and Business Bureau, Ravalli County Economic Development Authority, First Interstate Bank, Treasure State Bank, Community Bank, Apex Engineering, Southgate Mall, Missoula Downtown Business Improvement District and Open Road Bicycles and Nordic Equipment.

King says he hopes the draft study will be available later this summer, at which point the public will be invited to view it and provide input before the final report is released in the fall. Once it’s complete, MAEDC plans to put the final report in the hands of “decision makers.”

Whether those decision makers will include the Forest Service officials still tasked with handling Maclay’s permit request, and whether the final study presents any forecast but rosy, remains to be seen. But whatever the study ultimately concludes, at least Missoulians know who was curious enough to pay to find out.
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