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Housing a problem across ski country

Susan GallagherVail, CO Colorado
** ADVANCE WEEKEND MARCH 10-11 ** A Big Sky Resort employee gets off a Blue Bird staff buss that shuttles workers from the base of the Big Sky mountain to the White Water Inn, Feb. 15, 2007 in Big Sky, Mont. The destination ski resort that put Big Sky on the map is marketed as "a place all your own," complete with a big landscape north of Yellowstone National Park. But for many inhabitants of the Whitewater Inn just off the highway, a place of one's own is an elusive dream.(AP Photo/Lucas Flory)
AP | AP

BIG SKY, Mont. (AP) – The lavish ski resort that put Big Sky on the map features mansions for the rich and famous – but little room for the workers who run the chairlifts and clean the bathrooms.Billboards along the highway that passes the vast landscape north of Yellowstone National Park invite people to “own your dream.” Dreaming really big? Check out the 10-bedroom, $155 million house that developer Tim Blixseth wants to build at his ultra-exclusive Yellowstone Club.But for resort worker Rachael Fye, the dream is cold clam chowder straight from the can, and a small room the 21-year-old shares with a South African co-worker.Fye lives at the Whitewater Inn just off the highway. It’s a former hotel purchased by Big Sky Resort in December. Workers live at least two to a room. Resort figures indicate that on an average night, 80 percent of the 62 rooms are occupied by employees lacking affordable alternatives in this swanky community. Some of the locals are not pleased with the arrangements.

Sale of the Whitewater Inn barely was complete this winter when the Gallatin County Planning Department began getting complaints that putting resort workers in the rooms violated zoning regulations and set a perilous precedent.

“We could end up with a situation where dormitories, barracks, subsidized housing, private corporate offices and heliports are popping up throughout Big Sky and Gallatin Canyon,” wrote homeowner Mark Fisher. Property values and the ecosystem would be at risk, Fisher said.Blixseth is in a spot similar to the ski resort’s. He has bought a motel about a quarter mile from the Whitewater Inn and expects some of the rooms to house people working at the Yellowstone Club. Critics have not formally challenged the plan, but say it illustrates their concern that employer-sponsored housing will spread.”Working-class people make up the fiber of America,” responded Blixseth, who grew up poor in Oregon and made a fortune in lumber and real estate. He finds critics more concerned about the niceties of zoning than about working people.

Pawn-shop fridgeFinding places to put resort workers is not an issue limited to Montana.In Colorado, Copper Mountain Resort bought a former Club Med to house hundreds of winter employees. Seasonal workers at the state’s Telluride ski resort often live in rent-controlled apartments, some owned by the towns of Telluride and Mountain Village.Officials for Montana’s Gallatin County have twice found Whitewater Inn compatible with zoning regulations.The boxy hotel opened in 1998 and became budget lodging in Big Sky, where accommodations easily can cost several hundred dollars a night.

A free shuttle bus stops at Whitewater Inn and takes Big Sky Resort employees to their jobs nine miles up Lone Mountain Trail, named for the 11,166-foot peak that opened for skiing nearly 35 years ago. Passengers on a recent trip included workers from Morocco, Jamaica and Latin America.Also aboard was Fye, who took a break from her Pennsylvania State University studies to spend a winter in the Northern Rockies. Fye scans ski-lift tickets and is one of about 900 people who work at the resort during ski season.She and a worker from South Africa share a room at Whitewater Inn. Fye gets a daily meal at the resort and otherwise eats in the room, which has a mini-fridge from a pawn shop. Cold clam chowder straight from the can is a frequent dinner.”I’m very content here,” said Fye, whose starting hourly pay was a little over $7, plus ski privileges, meal discounts and other benefits. Whitewater rooms with double occupancy cost about $12 a night, per employee, resort spokesman Dax Schieffer said.’Business climate’

Pat and Carol Collins, residents of the Big Sky area, say housing employees at the hotel means it may be a boarding house or dormitory, uses zoning regulations prohibit. Big Sky Resort says Whitewater remains a public place. Tourists still can get rooms, the pool is available for school swim lessons and the Rotary Club still is offered meeting space, the resort told the Planning Department.Pat Collins finds it disturbing that Big Sky Resort wants Whitewater Inn for housing yet removed dormitories on resort property within the past few years, to make way for condominiums. Schieffer said the resort also bought the 80-bed Golden Eagle Lodge, which accommodates about as many employees as those dorms housed.Collins declined to discuss possible housing solutions but said the resort has “lots of land up there. They could give me a call and I could give them some suggestions.” Schieffer said the “business climate” is among reasons the resort is not building dormitories.Collins’ lawyer Margot Barg told the Planning Department the housing issue is difficult because it involves employees with few housing options, and residents who rely on zoning to guide decisions about buying homes and establishing businesses.Options are indeed few, given the dearth of rentals that chair-lift operators can afford. Besides Whitewater Inn and Golden Eagle Lodge, Big Sky Resort offers housing at a third location, close to ski slopes. Often it is full.


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