Bridger Aerospace and Gallatin College

Crews work on repairing and updating a CL-215 at Bridger Aerospace on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022.

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The Gallatin County Commission amended an agreement with Bridger Aerospace Tuesday that will aid the company in expanding its operations.

The commission’s approval extended the time frame that the Belgrade-based company could use industrial revenue bonds to buy more scooper aircraft and build hangars. The commission first approved the agreement in October 2020 to issue $160 million worth of bonds on the company’s behalf.

However, the company only used about $7.3 million worth of bond money in 2021.

Nathan Bilyeu, bond counsel for Bridger Aerospace, said that the total amount of approved bond money was broken up into portions.

Market dynamics caused the company to only use a fraction of the initial approved total last year, he said.

The original agreement allowed bonds to be put on the national market in 2021. Amending that agreement now allows the company to get the rest of the money, which is about $153 million.

No taxpayer money has been put toward the company’s expansion plans. Industrial Revenue Bonds require a government entity, like Gallatin County, to act as a conduit helping businesses reach the national bond market.

Conduits like the county are protected from financial liability should Bridger Aerospace default in repaying the bonds.

“It’s not county debt, there’s no county obligation,” Bilyeu said.

The county would also be paid for its time and involvement in the bond issuance process, Bilyeu said.

How much the county would be paid depends on the amount that is actually issued when the bonds hit the national market.

If the full $153 million is issued, then the county would make just over $99,000, he said.

Sam Davis, the vice president of finance for Bridger Aerospace, said the first installment of bond money was used to build a new hangar, which is about 50% complete.

The plan for the rest of the money is to buy more scooper aircraft, or tankers, and to build another hangar. So far, the company operates four tankers. The bond money would go toward buying two more.

Darren Wilkins, the chief operating office for Bridger Aerospace, said during the county meeting that the company has grown its fleet of firefighting aircraft to four planes since first working with the county.

“This year we’re bringing on another two, which makes us the largest scooper company operation in the U.S.,” Wilkins said.

Each tanker costs about $30 million, and is capable of carrying 1,412 gallons of water in two onboard tanks.

The money would help the company to keep pace with its rapid expansion, too. Davis said that when he started in 2019, the company had 45 employees.

Bridger Aerospace now employs about 160 people, creating 45 new jobs in the county in just the last year, Davis said.

The county has also approved other industrial revenue bond projects. Yellowstone Fiber, then known as Bozeman Fiber, received the go ahead from the county for $65 million worth of bonds last year.

The company began laying cable earlier this year as part of its planned fiber optic network.

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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at amiller@dailychronicle.com or by phone at 406-582-2648.

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