Big Mountain Resort needs a new road. The serpentine strip of pavement leading 1,500 vertical feet up into the Whitefish Range is pocked by crumbling pavement and slowed by tricky hairpin turns. For the last 13 years, the resort has lobbied the Montana Department of Transportation and the Flathead County Commission for money to rebuild the one paved route to and from the resort.
Those efforts began to skid in June when the County Commission voted to remove the Big Mountain Road from its list of high-priority projects. The Commission stripped the project of $6.9 million in allotted funds, which sent Big Mountain Resort in search of a new way to get at least some of the proposed improvements completed in time to serve the needs of the largest real estate development in the resort’s history.
Over the next eight to 10 years, Big Mountain plans to more than triple the number of “pillows” at the resort. “Pillows” is resort-speak for “bed base,” or the number of visitors a ski area can accommodate year-round. This is all part of the Glacier Village plan, which aspires to turn Big Mountain’s base area into a mini tourist town. The building of Glacier Village will generate jobs in construction and the service industries, the resort says, and require “$300 million in improvements” to the forested basin halfway up Big Mountain.
While the partners behind the proposed expansions at Big Mountain—Hines Resorts and Winter Sports Incorporated—have budgeted for the construction of everything from walking trails to a fake pond, nowhere in Glacier Village’s $300 million price tag is there any money for a new road down the mountain. In other parts of Flathead County, homeowners rally together to pay for unfunded road improvements. They bind their mutual interests into something called a Rural Special Improvement District, then assess themselves a fee that goes toward maintaining the roads they all share.
Big Mountain Road is different in that it’s a state road that handles much more than residential traffic. That’s one reason not much has been said about asking adjacent and nearby property owners to help pay for the road’s much-needed reconstruction.
Originally, Big Mountain sought to improve the road from the blinking light at the bottom to the entrance of the resort. But when the Department of Transportation tried to secure right-of-way from property owners along the route, they ran into something steeper than the grade leading up to the ski hill: real estate prices.
“There was a huge inflationary trend,” says MDOT’s Ray Harbin, describing how every property owner approached about selling part of their property refused to accept what the state considered to be a fair price. MDOT made offers on 89 parcels, and property owners came back with counter offers that were two and three times what the state was willing to pay. Harbin says it’s hard to move any project forward “when you’re miles apart like that.”
So in addition to having its funding withdrawn by the County Commission, Big Mountain Resort must also contend with a monster it helped create. Before the road can be rebuilt, someone—Big Mountain, the state, the county or the federal government—must find a way to pay the ever-growing asking prices for properties in the right-of-way.
There’s no denying that real estate prices up and down Big Mountain Road fluctuate according to the appeal of the resort at the top. Over the last decade, and particularly in the last few years, real estate prices in Whitefish and on Big Mountain have shot up as fast as the eyebrows of homebuyers trying to cope with sticker shock.
The asking price for a 1,000 sq. ft. condo in Big Mountain’s Kintla Lodge is $450,000. These little properties are cheap compared to the $750,000 town homes and giant, log fortresses that range well into the millions. In a recent press release, Big Mountain touted how well it was doing in the escalating real estate market when it reported more than $35 million in “brisk sales” since Sept. 11, 2001. Certain neighborhood developments on the mountain are sold out, and there’s much more to come.
Still, Big Mountain spokesman Dan Virkstis cautions against drawing a correlation between the booming real estate market around the base area and the incredible asking price of property along the road connecting the resort to the rest of the world.
“I think you need to be careful with your word choice,” says Virkstis. “As far as [real estate prices] being a beast that we created, no, it’s a long process, a slow process, and we’re just seeking a safe road…It’s a matter of public safety.”
Commissioner Gipe chooses the word “yes” when asked if resort development at Big Mountain has led to the outrageous asking prices for property along Big Mountain Road. He worries that by the time construction begins, the project’s cost will have climbed to around $20 million.
“They certainly are going to have to have a better road,” says Gipe, “whether they participate, or the county or whatever.”
Currently, Big Mountain is looking for a way to use $4.5 million in federal highway dollars to secure right-of-way from property owners along the final, steepest section of the proposed new road. It would swing to the east at the Ptarmigan condos, passing through private property and Forest Service land before topping out near the entrance to Big Mountain. There are eight property owners along this stretch, and MDOT is more hopeful about striking a deal with this smaller group.
Meanwhile, the overall group of Big Mountain property owners continues to grow. On April 5, Hines Resorts released 13 new home sites in a locale called The Glades, selling 11 of the 13 home sites in a single day.