Editor’s note: Yellowstone Club World, a group of luxury resorts around the world planned by Tim Blixseth, purchased the 3,248-acre Monster Lake ranch property near Cody, Wyo., in January and will develop it as the Buffalo Bill Ranch, a Western-themed retreat exclusively for the use of a small, very wealthy membership. What can people who live nearby expect from this vacation retreat for the super-rich in their midst? To help answer this question, The Gazette takes an inside look at Blixseth’s first big resort project, the Yellowstone Club, above, still a work in progress at Big Sky.
BIG SKY — There is a ski trail at the private Yellowstone Club with the curious name of Tooth Fairy.
The long, slow cruiser is an easy path for beginners to follow on their way down Pioneer Mountain, but the name of the run offers a glimpse into the mind of club founder and developer Tim Blixseth.
Dave Kisko, of the club's sales and marketing department, clearly delights in telling the story of the time Blixseth told a colleague his ideas for a private ski and golf community on 13,400 acres near Big Sky.
"The guy told Tim, 'If you think this is going to work, then you must believe in the tooth fairy,'" Kisko said. "So now, you can ski a run here called Tooth Fairy."
Nothing seems to focus Blixseth on a project like hearing from an "expert" that it can't be done, Kisko said.
After more than five years, including some stiff opposition from environmentalists and others opposed to the development, the "Tooth Fairy" dream of Yellowstone Club is starting to return a few coins under Blixseth's pillow.
Properties include condominiums, chalets, multi-acre homesites starting at around $2 million, and even private 160-acre ranches. More than 250 members have joined, all buying property as a condition of membership.
Kisko reckons that's about halfway to the break-even point for running the property. About 50 new members join each year, he said.
But if anyone at the Yellowstone Club is in a hurry to sell homesites or build out the mountain, it doesn't come across in the decidedly low-key sales approach.
During a weekend trip in March accompanying a prospective member, the club's sales and marketing staff granted The Gazette virtually unrestricted access.
Blixseth, who made a fortune in the timber business, spent about $24 million in 1992 to acquire roughly 130,000 acres around the Gallatin National Forest.
After some savvy trading with his partners and the federal government — which wanted to preserve sensitive tracts near Yellowstone National Park — Blixseth ended up with both a tidy profit and sole ownership of 30,000 acres adjacent to the Big Sky Ski Resort.
Blixseth and his wife of 25 years, Edra, thought the property near Big Sky would make a great ski retreat for their family.
Friends wanted in, too, asking to buy homesites, and the Blixseths decided there was a market for a high-end, private ski and golf community.
The plan to develop the property soon became controversial, however. Conservationists said the deal was the result of a series of land swaps that benefited Blixseth to the detriment of the public good.
Environmentalists worried about rapid growth in the Big Sky area and questioned the need for such a property. Others questioned Blixseth's close ties to Republican politicians and his fundraising for them.
In August 2004, the Yellowstone Club agreed to pay a $1.8 million fine levied by the Environmental Protection Agency for alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
The resort was accused of dumping dredge and fill material from construction areas into federally protected wetlands.
In June 2004, the resort paid $231,000 as a separate penalty for alleged violations of Montana water protection laws.
Blixseth decided to pay the fines and move on rather than fighting them in court, said Brooke Draves, a marketing and public relations specialist with the club.
Draves said the company was committed to protecting the environment as part of all its development plans.
Turning a corner
As development in the area continues to boom, including in a number of new properties unrelated to the Yellowstone Club, even some locals opposed on principle to the elite community seem grudgingly to accept it as a fact of life.
Change has come to Big Sky, with property values skyrocketing and a building boom in full swing, and the Yellowstone Club is only one part of a seismic shift in a local land bonanza that started decades ago.
Construction traffic clogs the narrow road through town.
"You just have to stay off the canyon road between 7 and 9 in the morning," said Gavin Cooper, who works service and construction jobs around Big Sky.
Blixseth has been able to persuade hundreds of the country's sharpest businesspeople to buy into a club that is still very much a work in progress.
"There was a lot of hand waving in those early days," Kisko said. "We're going to put a ski lift in over here," he would tell early buyers, waving at a wide swath of mountainside, "then right up there will be a lodge.
"But we're at the point now that we have enough of the amenities finished that it's really just a matter of letting the property speak for itself," he said.
But for now, members sometimes use temporary locker rooms before skiing, or take their lunches on the lodge patio when indoor tables are full.
The sight of a gaggle of millionaires showing such patience and good humor may defy the stereotype, but like most private country clubs, the Yellowstone Club admits only those approved for membership.
That means not only being able to afford the $250,000 initiation fee and $16,000 yearly dues, but also being a good egg in a club that wants to be thought of as "two parts neighborhood and one part resort."
Prospective members must be approved by Blixseth and his advisers, a practice some have branded elitist but which club employees say is aimed at maintaining a friendly, family atmosphere.
Snapping at a waiter, barking orders at a chairlift operator or engaging in financial one-upmanship with other members are red flags likely to blackball prospective members, Kisko said.
Aloof titans of industry or obnoxious celebrities might be passed over in favor of members like Joel Long Jr. and his wife, Judith, of Billings.
An accomplished skier, Long was lured by the Yellowstone Club's expansive, uncrowded slopes, which the club markets under the trademarked phrase "private powder."
Long soon began hosting his father, Joel Sr., who is retired from the family construction business. Under club rules, the elder Long was welcome to ski as a guest for up to two weeks every year.
"I soon found out that 14 days weren't enough for me," he said. The senior Long and his wife, Andrea, bought a lot and built a house from which he can ski directly onto the slopes.
Gates of Yellowstone Club
Long isn't the only engineer on the slopes. Though staff members typically don't discuss the membership roster, it's no secret that Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, are members.
But when the world's richest man took to the slopes in March, it was hardly a concern around the club.
And rumors swirling at a Big Sky bar of a visit to the club by prospective member Brad Pitt, the Hollywood actor, were unmentioned inside the property.
That is thanks in part to a security policy that some have called overly zealous, but that employees say is meant to ensure that members can relax in an atmosphere where privacy is paramount and safety is a given.
With a former Secret Service agent in charge of security, even plumbers or electricians working at a remote homesite must submit to a background check.
Within the property, the approach is understated and discreet, with security close by but typically unnoticed.
A winning formula
The Blixseths set the tone for social interaction in the community. It is surprisingly laid-back and welcoming, at least for those who can afford the tab.
"Check your ego at the gate" is a Blixseth mantra that staff members are fond of repeating.
Clad in a pair of neatly pressed jeans and a simple black shirt sporting the club logo, Blixseth mixed with dozens of members and guests at a club dinner this spring.
He appeared to take a genuine interest in catching up with the members, chatting with affable curiosity with nearly everyone in the room.
And if Tim Blixseth is approachable, Edra Blixseth is downright gregarious, mingling and joking with billionaires and bartenders alike.
Together, they seem to have hit on a formula for a vacation community that some of the country's wealthiest people find appealing.
So as the Blixseths prepare to announce details soon for the Yellowstone Club World — a collection of 10 luxury properties aimed at a few hundred members willing to pay a $2 million buy-in — the smart money this time around might just end up betting on the Tooth Fairy.
Seeking to expand on that formula, the Blixseths have just launched their latest venture, Yellowstone Club World.
An offshoot of the Yellowstone Club, YCW boasts a handful of exclusive properties aimed at a few hundred members willing to buy in for between $3 million and $10 million.
An initial offering of YCW memberships earlier this month drew a reported 25 buyers in a single day.
Members may vacation anytime in exotic locales around the world, and they can contract to use private jets and yachts from the YCW fleet.
Along with a European castle, a secluded seaside village on Mexico's Pacific coast, and a private island in the Caribbean, YCW will feature Buffalo Bill Ranch, a 3,248-acre property south of Cody, Wyo., scheduled to open in 2008.
Soon, the first YCW members will visit resorts in far-flung corners of the globe. Perhaps some will choose to travel there on the club's 147-foot yacht, Tooth Fairy.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at email@example.com or 307-527-7250