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An Increasing Number of Wealthy Residents are Buying Vacation Homes in Montana’s Big Sky

Sunday, November 4th, 2018 at 8:57pm Office Shell Admin Big Sky

 
 
Newly completed Waterfall building condos, left, in the village at Yellowstone Club. Janie Osborne for The Wall Street Journal
Real Estate Real Estate

A Secluded Ski Destination Gets a Luxury Home Lift

Drawn by the sparse crowds, great views and upscale amenities, an increasing number of wealthy residents are buying vacation homes in Montana’s Big Sky

Newly completed Waterfall building condos, left, in the village at Yellowstone Club.
Janie Osborne for The Wall Street Journal
 
 
Newly completed Waterfall building condos, left, in the village at Yellowstone Club.
Newly completed Waterfall building condos, left, in the village at Yellowstone Club. Photo: Janie Osborne for The Wall Street Journal

Look out from 11,166 feet, the top of Big Sky’s Lone Peak in Montana, and as far as the eye can see are layers of mountain in assorted shades of red, brown, blue and gray, appearing like triangles of tissue paper on a hazy day. The vastness is almost too much for the brain to process.

But Big Sky’s enormity means there is a whole lot of everything. And right now there’s a whole lot of construction. Big Sky resort community, with 5,800 skiable acres, is in the midst of a transformation. Drive through town or any of the major resort areas—Moonlight Basin, Spanish Peaks or Yellowstone Club—and log mansions, houses, townhomes and condominiums in varying mountain styles are cropping up everywhere. Construction vehicles clog roads, creating minor traffic jams in the early morning hours.

 

A view of the Village at Yellowstone Club.
A view of the Village at Yellowstone Club. Photo: Janie Osborne for The Wall Street Journal

Last year’s heavy snowfall put Big Sky on the map for many potential home buyers who might typically choose to ski in California and Colorado, says Bill Collins, director of sales at the Yellowstone Club, a members-only resort community with a private ski mountain. “It snowed early and never stopped.”

At Yellowstone Club, the most expensive resort in the ski area, condos and small vacant lots both start at about $3 million. And the ultra-private enclave is expanding: A 500,000-square-foot lodge with 48 condos is being built; it’s the largest construction project in the state. The two-bedroom units start around $4 million and are nearly sold out, according to the club. Privacy-seeking billionaires and celebrities have been lured to Yellowstone Club, including Bill Gates, Justin Timberlake and Google co-founder Eric Schmidt. (Membership requires home or land ownership, a $400,000 deposit and $42,500 in annual dues.)

“What differentiates the Big Sky market a bit from other resort markets is that Big Sky is really coming out of the ground,” says Ania Bulis, a local real-estate broker. She says sales volume started to get brisk around 2013, but has exploded in the past two years. The market is booming at the high end and at other price points, she adds. The median single-family home sales price in Big Sky in 2017 was $1.237 million, up from $723,750 in 2012, according to the Big Sky Real Estate Co. (Figures don’t include sales at Yellowstone Club, which the resort doesn’t make public).

Properties are also selling faster. In 2017, homes sat on the market for an average of 78.5 days, down from 275.5 days in 2015, according to Trulia. Vacant lots remain the best bargain, says Ms. Bulis. Undeveloped properties can start anywhere from $300,000 for ¼ acre near Town Center to about $750,000 for a smaller ski-in/ski-out lot at Moonlight Basin. Locals say that with construction booming, booking contractors is a challenge.

Big Sky’s Town Center is getting a makeover, including a new Marriott hotel, shown under construction, that will be named for Woodrow Wilson.
Big Sky’s Town Center is getting a makeover, including a new Marriott hotel, shown under construction, that will be named for Woodrow Wilson.
Photo: Janie Osborne for The Wall Street Journal

In 2016, Boyne Resorts, the owner of Big Sky Resort, the main ski community, launched Big Sky 2025, a campaign to bring upgrades to the area. Nearly $1 billion in improvements are under way, including a developer-built Town Center that will soon get its first branded hotel: a Marriott Residence Inn named for Woodrow Wilson (who signed the act creating the National Park Service); it’s set to open by summer 2019. Two luxury hotels are coming: a Montage resort under construction at Spanish Peaks and a One & Only Resort at Moonlight that is expected to break ground in a year or two.

The ski mountain is also getting a major upgrade, including the most luxurious network of lifts in the nation. In December, it will become the first in North America to get a European-style eight-seat lift that’s heated and has extra-wide ergonomic chairs. The Mountain Village’s central dining area, now a cafeteria, is set to become a food hall with sushi, ramen and wood-fire pizza stations. Even Chet’s Bar & Grill, the 1970s-era après-ski bar decorated with taxidermy and wooden skis at the landmark Huntley’s Lodge, is being overhauled.

So far, the effort is paying off: Skier visits were up nearly 20% last winter.

Big Sky bills itself as “the Biggest Skiing in America,” though Park City Mountain Resort in Utah and nearby Canyons combined in 2015, making them technically larger. But both its size and sparse crowds—just 470,000 annual skier visits, about one-third of Vail’s and one-half of Jackson Hole’s—means lift lines are rare. Regulars say it isn’t uncommon to have runs all to yourself, even on holiday weekends.

Add to that Montana’s steady annual snowfall—snowstorms typically hit by September and ski lifts run reliably from Thanksgiving to mid- or late-April—and it is easy to see why Big Sky is such an enticing ski destination.

It was always a little under the radar. Just an hour south of the nearest airport, in Bozeman, Big Sky was missing some major ski-destination hallmarks. Separate and often-at-odds ownership meant its ski areas and resorts didn’t have a cohesive feel. Until recently, Big Sky (pop. 2,700) lacked a town center with the bustling après-ski scene, boutique shopping and fine dining found in places like Aspen. On-mountain dining options weren’t too fancy. There weren’t any branded hotels.

The Summit Hotel at Big Sky Resort at the base of the mountain.
The Summit Hotel at Big Sky Resort at the base of the mountain.
Photo: Janie Osborne for The Wall Street Journal

“A lot of the success we’ve seen at Yellowstone Club is now being translated to the other resorts,” says Matthew Kidd, a managing director at CrossHarbor.Things got worse a decade ago. Yellowstone Club declared bankruptcy in 2008, followed by Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks. In 2009, Boston-based private-equity firm CrossHarbor Capital Partners bought Yellowstone Club. It then purchased Spanish Peaks out of bankruptcy and Moonlight Basin from Lehman Brothers post-bankruptcy, and partnered with Boyne Resorts to connect their ski acreage—adding to Big Sky’s big-ski reputation. (Unlike Yellowstone Club, visitors can rent homes or condos at Spanish Peaks or Moonlight Basin.)

At Moonlight Basin, there is a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course that opened in 2016, a private lake with mountain views and plans to build 40 to 50 homes annually over the next five years. Newly built three-bedroom townhomes start at $1.8 million.

Despite the influx of wealthy vacation-home buyers, Big Sky retains its rugged, small-town vibe. Regulars and locals know each other and you might notice that the woman selling you a ticket on the mountain in the morning is your waitress at a restaurant near town at night.

Alex Omania arrived at Big Sky as a ski bum in the early 2000s and later opened Lotus Pad, a six-table Thai fusion restaurant that closed during the off-season. Last year, she moved into a modern, multi-room restaurant with a bar and outdoor patio in the new Town Center. It’s now usually packed and open year round. “It’s so great to see this place growing,” she said. “When I moved here, this whole area was dirt.”

 
 Write to Candace Jackson at candace.jackson@wsj.com

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