Downhill run for Sugar Loaf: Property decays and owners dither

The Sugar Loaf resort, in the heart of Leelanau County, offers views that would make most communities envious. To the east, Lake Leelanau’s elegant finger runs up the spine of the peninsula. To the north, Good Harbor Bay and Lake Michigan are a vista of blue. Apple and cherry orchards and farmland surround this mountain in the place the Native Americans called “the land of delight.”

But Sugar Loaf’s chairlifts sit idle, their wooden seats and red paint chipping away as the seasons pass. The only skiers and snowboarders here are thrill-seeking trespassers who scale the mountain on foot. The warming huts at the top of Sugar Loaf are boarded up, with broken beer bottles and bonfire pits decorating their interior.

Elsewhere in Leelanau County, tourism and business are booming. “Good Morning America” dubbed the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as “the most beautiful place in America” in 2011, leading to record tourism the following summer and record profits for area restaurants and shops. Nearby Traverse City draws visitors from around the world to its film and comedy festivals, and its wineries and unique restaurants.

Against this backdrop, Sugar Loaf, listed by a local realtor at $8.7 million, remains the (white) elephant in the room. The resort once supported hundreds of local jobs during the cold months of the ski season, when warm-weather tourists stayed away. Like the abandoned Packard Plant in Detroit or the Hiawatha Iron Ore Mine in the Upper Peninsula, Sugar Loaf’s remains are now a blight on the landscape, a missed economic opportunity for the region and an embarrassment to its community.

Closed since 2000 following a string of light winters, Sugar Loaf has been courted and abandoned by a revolving cast of mysterious owners and suitors with backstories that read like a crime novel. The resort’s would-be saviors have included a convicted felon, a Las Vegas tax cheat and his new wife, a teenage lounge singer from New Zealand, the owner of an addiction treatment center and religious squatters. None have been able to reopen the place and, even today, nobody is precisely sure who owns the resort.

Making Sugar Loaf’s revival even more remote is a disastrous business deal that divorced the ski hill and lodge from the nearby townhouses, golf course and wastewater treatment plant, lessening the ability of any would-be owner to earn warm weather income from the resort.

“Everybody’s just sick of the dog and pony show,” says Karl Kitchen, who runs the “Friends of Sugar Loaf” Facebook page, which boasts 1,825 members. “They’re sick of the circus that has surrounded who owns it, and what’s gonna happen to it. Sugar Loaf Resort, as far as Leelanau County is concerned, is a fruit rotting on the vine, and people are getting sick of watching it rot.”

The latest tease

The drama escalated last September, when Eneliko “Liko” Smith claimed that he owned Sugar Loaf. Smith is a former Olympic-level Samoan boxer and West Coast hotelier whose previous business deals have failed, and whose personal life has played out poorly in reality television shows. In 2009 Smith lost The Block Hotel in South Lake Tahoe, on the California-Nevada border, to creditors, and was accused of failing to pay $130,000 in room taxes. Smith was charged with a felony which lead to a plea deal. Authorities in El Dorado County, Calif., later had a warrant out for his arrest for violating terms of the probation.

Smith had first introduced himself to Leelanau residents in 2010, following the collapse of The Block, when he appeared at Sugar Loaf with his newlywed wife, a 19-year-old New Zealand lounge singer he had met in Las Vegas. He boastfully courted local media and local investors. Admitting that he “Googled poorly,” Smith vowed he would buy and re-open Sugar Loaf by the following winter.

Like the abandoned Packard Plant in Detroit or the Hiawatha Iron Ore Mine in the Upper Peninsula, Sugar Loaf’s remains are now a blight on the landscape, a missed economic opportunity for the region and an embarrassment to its community.

Despite initial claims to the contrary, news emerged that Smith was a business associate of a previous and equally colorful owner of the resort, Remo Polselli, a Southfield hotelier with properties in Detroit and southern California who served time in 2003 for failing to pay taxes. Polselli owned Sugar Loaf from 1997 through its closing in 2000. In 2005, Polselli appeared to have sold the resort to Kate Wickstrom, a Leelanau County native who ran an addiction treatment center near Grand Rapids but never found the means to re-open the resort. Wickstrom stopped paying taxes on the property, but Polselli’s wife Hanna Karcho, who it turns out had secretly co-signed the mortgage, paid back taxes to Leelanau County in the eleventh hour to avoid losing the property.

Smith, tarnished in the eyes of some Northern Michiganders by his connections to Polselli, held a fundraiser in the spring of 2010 at Red Ginger, a downtown Traverse City restaurant, but failed to secure much interest in co-financing the project. He left the restaurant without paying his bill.

Most of Northern Michigan figured they would never hear from Smith again.

And the resort continued to gather cobwebs. Local residents longed for the days when chairlifts transported them to the top of the mountain. Sugar Loaf had been a cherished stop for generations of Michigan skiers, with its own compelling backstory. The resort was founded just after World War II by a group that included Hans “Peppi” Teichner, a Jewish member of Germany’s national ski team when Hitler came to power. During the Spanish Civil War, Teichner helped those fleeing Franco’s fascist regime elude capture by skiing to freedom over the Pyrenees. He and his wife finally settled in Glen Arbor and helped open the resort in 1947.

After the Smith drama and false starts of 2010, rumors quieted for a spell.

The boxer returns

Then, last September, a press release written by Liko Smith began circulating the Internet. Smith announced that he and a team of partners had acquired Sugar Loaf and would turn it into a 560-acre snowboarder’s mecca called “The RoK at Sugar Loaf” and open by Thanksgiving 2014. The resort’s appeal would be decidedly young, edgy and altogether California.

The RoK at Sugar Loaf’s Facebook page circulated a video that interwove pristine aerial views of the mountain with shots of Las Vegas strippers straddling Smith. Subsequent press releases claimed that Smith planned to bring in Israeli filmmaker Elan Frank (creator of films about the Israeli air force and Sarah Palin) to shoot a reality TV series at Sugar Loaf.

By early October, a would-be co-investor named Oscar Peters, who was working with Smith to develop a luxury Las Vegas airliner called LV Air, told the Glen Arbor Sun that he had never set foot in Northern Michigan and had never heard of Sugar Loaf. He announced that he would separate all ties with Smith.

No evidence existed that Smith owned Sugar Loaf. Kate Wickstrom’s name was still listed on the title at the county’s Register of Deeds office. Wickstrom maintained that she had transferred the title back to Polselli in March 2013, but he never registered it with the County, fueling speculation that he was pulling strings behind the curtain.

Meanwhile, local residents expressed concerns about the safety of the decaying resort, leading to speculation that Smith, and perhaps Polselli too, wanted to act before Leelanau County Construction Code inspector Steve Haugen could inspect, and perhaps condemn, the lodge and hotel and seize the property. Smith told a reporter that he feared Haugen was about to summon the bulldozers. Prompted by a complaint from the Sugar Loaf townhouse association, Haugen secured permission from a County judge in December to inspect Sugar Loaf, with or without the resort’s owner, whoever that was.

But anyone in Leelanau County who wanted local government to condemn and seize the long-shuttered resort faced an uphill battle. The seven-seat County Commission, controlled by small-government, Tea Party activists, expressed concern with Haugen’s efforts to inspect Sugar Loaf, with some citing United Nations conspiracy theories as a basis to thwart economic development plans in general.

Even so, Smith announced that he would triumphantly return to Northern Michigan on Jan. 31, tour the property and prove to Haugen that he owned Sugar Loaf. That day, he broadcast on Facebook and told local media that he would hold a public meet-and-greet during karaoke night at a local bar called the Cedar Tavern.

January 31 came and went. With an extraditable warrant out for his arrest in California, and no evidence ever made public that he owned Sugar Loaf, Smith never showed. Just in case, at 1 p.m., Leelanau County’s undersheriff waited by the ski hill, presumably to arrest Liko Smith and send him back to California in handcuffs.

On Feb. 5, Haugen quietly entered and inspected Sugar Loaf. He concluded that the resort suffered cosmetic damage but was structurally sound and clear of sewage or rodent problems.

Joining the inspector that day was realtor John Peppler, who later that week revealed that he was acting on behalf of Polselli, who currently lives in Laguna Beach, Calif. Through a corporation called Rock Investments Advisors, Polselli is now again claiming he owns the resort and is reportedly fielding offers this month from two potential buyers.

Leelanau County residents and northern Michigan skiers, wary of being burned again, can only sit back and hope that a real buyer will emerge, with concrete plans to reopen Sugar Loaf.

“The location is great and it’s beautiful,” says Mickey MacWilliams, executive director of the Michigan Snowsports Industries Association.“We’d all love to see Sugar Loaf come back because it was a really cool place. I think the ski industry would take interest if it ever did come back. It’s a special place.”

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Comments

sallyneal
Wed, 02/26/2014 - 5:33pm
jacob.....you are one fine journalist.......great job on this history...what a pile of worms. with no light at the end..yes and what a sad waste.....i hav a frostbite spot on my nose from skiing there when i shoulda been elsewhere....thxxx for keeping us updated. sally
Annie O'Neill
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 11:58pm
Sally Dear Sally - All these years and I guess the party's still over . . . (the bag I bought from you which made my mother laugh and laugh and laugh . . .) If you're having trouble remembering me, I'm Elly's sister, and Mary Ann and John's daughter :) I can only assume you're still up here based on your Sugar Loaf comments, and SO tickled to see your name as I now LIVE at Sugar Loaf! Fondly, Annie O'Neill
Anna
Fri, 12/05/2014 - 8:33pm
Annie-- My name is Anna, and I'm Ann Rohr's granddaughter. Ann would like to get in touch with you, so if you could email me some contact information (schlach6@msu.edu) to pass along, it would be much appreciated! Thank you!
Mike
Wed, 02/26/2014 - 5:34pm
I have been following this issue for a while, but I have not heard about Tea Party activists on the Leelanau Commission expressing concern about Haugen's inspection of SL. Can you cite a reference for us? Thanks
Michael Huey
Wed, 02/26/2014 - 5:50pm
The history of Sugar Loaf is closely connected to the history of the Leelanau Schools; in my recent book "Straight as the Pine, Sturdy as the Oak" I included a great deal of historical information about skiing in Leelanau County and the early development of Sugar Loaf. I don’t think it is accurate to say that Sugar Loaf was founded by Hans “Peppi” Teichner. Sugar Loaf Sports Club was incorporated as a non-profit on March 10th, 1944 with my grandfather, Arthur “Major” Huey, as its president. By September 17th, 1945 Major was already writing to Edmund F. Ball about the future of the club and soliciting Ball’s assistance (a letter also quoted at length in my book). Major hired Peppi the following spring, on May 18th 1946, to manage the club, bringing him to Leelanau County for that purpose. My book reproduces in its entirety a fascinating letter from Peppi to Major, dated 16 April 1946, in which Peppi introduces himself, outlines his incredible life journey, and basically states his qualifications for and interest in the job of manager at Sugar Loaf. Peppi also taught at the Leelanau School and was the well-liked coach of its ski teams. An inspiring personality, Peppi was legendary in many ways and I do not wish to detract from his considerable contributions to skiing in northern Michigan and at Sugar Loaf in particular. But it was Major Huey who initiated the project, convinced others locally that it was an idea worth pursuing, and for many years acted as its leader, spokesman, and onward-driving force.
Rick Haglund
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 11:00am
But wasn't it Jim Ganter who really developed it into a resort, starting in the early 1960s?
Michael Huey
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 4:00pm
Hi Rick, Not sure exactly what the later (i.e. post-1950) timeframe was but yes, of course, the Ball family became increasingly involved in Sugar Loaf. As I understand it, Frank Ball and Jim Ganter (married to Frank’s cousin Pat) together created the resort we knew through the ’60s and ’70s and beyond. (The Leelanau School cleared its own skihill in the early 1960s and therefore the school’s involvement, and my grandfather’s, ended.) That’s what I meant in mentioning that my grandfather had sought to involve Edmund F. Ball (Frank’s father) as early as 1945. Michael
Michael Huey
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 4:04pm
I also meant to add that Peppi died quite young in 1957, which also necessitated changes. MH
Skip Bryant
Sat, 03/01/2014 - 6:32am
Michael Huey, Hi Michael, My father came to the Leelanau School from East Grand Rapids in 1941.He graduated in the spring of '43 and immediately went to the battle of Guam, and captured the airstrip in the battle of Iwo Jima. We talked a lot about his years in Glen Arbor including cutting down trees "for Major Huey" to make a ski hill. He spoke fondly of the Major. Even though we have two "Major" men in the family history, I think he named my brother for Major Huey. I never got exact clarification from him whether he cut the hill (and he actually skiied it the next winter) at the Homestead or at Sugar Loaf. Is it possible it was the very, very beginning at Sugar Loaf in the winter of '42/'43? Skip Bryant- Elk Rapids
Wed, 03/12/2014 - 7:46pm
Hi Skip, Thanks for your response and story. I guess it is possible that your father cleared trees for Sugar Loaf if the work took place in the winter of ’42/’43, although I had thought that most of the clearing was done in 1946, in the six months or so prior to the official opening of the Sugar Loaf Winter Sports Club facility on January 26, 1947 (with Michigan governor Kim Sigler in attendance). It is not unlikely, of course, that the school cleared and used an initial area of the (Sugar Loaf) ski hill at that early date (with no tow rope!) – especially since the Sugar Loaf Winter Sports Club was officially formed on March 10, 1944 – however the school also used a couple of other local hills in the early years (likewise no ropes!). One was on what was known as "the old golf course", which I take to be the defunct D.H. Day Estates property. There was also a hill they made use of on the east side of (Big) Glen Lake and long before the Leelanau School had its own ski hill it had what was known as the "Indian Trail" – the steep path to the top of Prospect Hill. I suppose your father might have been clearing trees in any of those places, too. :-) The school’s own ski hill on Prospect Hill was finally cleared in fall of 1960, long after your father’s time at Leelanau. Incidentally, Major began to write an "Alumni Bulletin" in 1943, the immediate purpose of which was to keep Leelanau graduates and current students in touch with each other and the wartime goings-on. Your father is probably mentioned in the December 15th (1943) missive. All my best, Michael
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 10:34am
From the Enterprise taken from the 2/9/2009 edition: County Board authorizes two county officials: Trudy Galla and David Schiflett?- to Washington to add Leelanau to the request to share 787 Billion in stimulus...6.5 for purchase of loaf... 4 million for sewage tx and2.5 to develop pubic sewer for Cedar ( still needed) and 2.74 for Broadband Services.. How about FOSL: and the Facebook FOSL put some pressure to re- visit this Plan.... EDC?? Makes perfect sense to me....
NLM
Thu, 02/27/2014 - 6:25pm
Hiawatha Iron Ore Mine in the U.P. -- exactly where might that be located?
Jim Sitko
Sat, 03/01/2014 - 8:34am
That was a great article Jacob and an accurate account of the immediate and long term history of the Sugar Loaf Resort. My family enjoyment skiing at Sugar Loaf with our part time residence 10 miles to the south in Glen Arbor. I'd like to add some thoughts to your historical account and more about the skiing at the area. When Remo Poselli came on the scene in the 1997, it appeared as though he was going to invest in Sugar Loaf for the long haul, but it hindsight, it was more to "flip" the property. Considerable monies were invested in the resort amenities, including a refurbished main dining area, new lobby bar and new lobby. The infrastructure for the resort that needed to be addressed included, but was not limited to, enhanced snow making, grooming equipment and lifts. I believe one new triple chair was added going up "Waffle". The area's location that made it such an attraction with the magnificent vistas of the surrounding areas, was also a major detriment. The close proximity to Lake Michigan and its moderating affect to the air temps had a lot of "lake affect" snow pass over the resort to be deposited inland where the temps were much colder. As a result, Sugar Loaf had to rely on man made snow to overcome the lean years of "system" snow to the area. When it came to skiing, there was no area in Northern Michigan that was more enjoyable for me and my family to ski. The terrain offered so much variety from the "heart stopping" runs like "Awful, Awful", and "Manitou Extreme" to long half mile cruisers. My sons learned to ski and race at the "loaf" and its challenging terrain. CUSSA races on "Manitou Extreme" and starts out of the box at the top were "scary" according to my oldest son Jeff. The views from the top were breathtaking. Atop "Devil's Elbow" (another great run) you look out over Lime Lake, Little Traverse Lake, and Lake Michigan. You felt like you were on top of the world, and in many ways you were. For those of us with experiences tied to Sugar Loaf, it's heart wrenching to see the insensitivity that's taken place over the last 14 years since its closure yesterday. The local property owners, restaurants, Traverse City hotels and eateries and of course the skiers and boarders have all paid the price as a result of the original sale of the property in the mid 1990's and separation of "profit centers". One can only hope that someone, who can see the opportunity that exists at this once storied operation, will bring it back to life, which will in turn elevate the lives of so many.
Jim Sitko
Sat, 03/01/2014 - 9:27am
Some thoughts for Peppler Realty to market Sugar Loaf: It's long term survivability requires a year round activity like, Crystal and the Boyne operations. Sugar Loaf would be a natural over the proposed "air walk" in Kasson Twp. No new infrastructure is required for parking, housing, restaurants. A new lift might be required if the triple over "Waffle" couldn't be certified. The views from atop Sugar Loaf Mtn. could never be replaced by the "air walk" proposal to the south. Magnificent views in all directions are attainable. Soon, the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail will meander just outside Sugar Loaf on Little Traverse Road for the biking crowd. Weddings atop of Sugar Loaf Mtn. would be incredible with receptions in the dining room below and pre reception cocktails at the top. Hold concerts atop Sugar Loaf Mtn. to take in the views in the evening with background music and cocktails. Deals could be worked out with "The Old Course" and Manitou Passage golf courses for packages for staying at the hotel. With the influx of new crowds to the peninsula, housing on the peninsula has become a problem. The Sugar Loaf Resort has a considerable number of rooms to occupy. I'm just rambling now but am certain that with the growing popularity of the Leelanau Peninsula, a large warm weather crowd could be found to make good use of the resort and bring in much needed revenue to support the operation year round.
brandy
Sun, 12/28/2014 - 3:33pm
Hello Jim, I read your comments and wanted to know if you know someone i could contact about taking pictures of the resort. Why i am asking this is because as a child i came there to ski for special Olympics in the 1990s. I haven't been back up there since than because of health reasons. If you could please contact me this is my e mail me or anyone who can point me to the right people all i want to do is take pictures and put it in our family scrap book.
***
Sat, 03/01/2014 - 11:06am
I had heard of Sugarloaf but didn't know it had closed, not being a skier I was of course out of the loop. Hope it can open again.
Keith Tondreau
Sat, 03/01/2014 - 11:38am
The sad thing is that Sugar Loaf fell into the hands of folks who saw it as a cash cow and effectively ruined its place as a community center.The problems started before Remo with the separation of the sewer / water system from the resort. Then the Townhouses. The current cost to bring those under one management system again is more than the current value of even reopening the resort with the added cosmetic and lift repairs you have a net sum loss. I spent a good part of my youth skiing,working,and partying at the Loaf and would love to support it again but having worked with property developers, Realators and Civil Engineers and now in the Financial world it more uphill than Awful,Awful.
Eric Schertzing
Sat, 03/01/2014 - 1:25pm
The local government and the tax collection process can force the hands of any would be owner. Someone must be paying the taxes. If the person paying the taxes can not prove their ownership there are grounds for refusing the payment. IF they do not like that they can sue and have a day in court. The Property Tax Foreclosure process, handled by the County Treasurer, is one way to bring this to a head.......and the Circuit Court action would cleanse the ownership interest. I think it was Trudy I talked to several years ago about this type of strategy. I remember the resort fondly from the 70's and 80's.
JC
Tue, 03/18/2014 - 9:15am
Why hasn't the biggest player in the area-Boyne, made a play for this property? Would seem like a good fit.
dp
Thu, 09/11/2014 - 5:15pm
It is way over priced. 8.7 million on a property that needs probably 15-20 million more to get operational. Fortunately the lifts are still intact, but you need snowmaking, grooming (even used they are about 100K per cat) and building repair. Unfortunately they lost the golf course but they are still next door to it. If I were going to do it I would really go after the wedding market, push it as a great destination close to the Sleeping Bear dunes, lake Michigan, Traverse City, ... Make the rooms affordable to the average person (plenty of high end stuff in the area), make the restaurants good but reasonable. Focus on local stuff, local wine, local beer, local products, local art, maybe a gallery onsite. They work to get events planned, film, music, skiing. Probably add cross country skiing as there isn't a lot in the area. Bottom line is that you need to make it fun and affordable, then you'll get people. It all takes money to get going and the asking price leaves you in a big hole to start.
Dave
Fri, 10/03/2014 - 1:11pm
I was just looking into this to potentially rent some of part of it for a weekend training exercise for some retired military and police officers to use for a training and practice location but it sounds like there isn't even a person to get ahold of to ask about a lease agreement.
brandy sisco
Sun, 12/28/2014 - 2:45pm
Hello i read this story with tears in my eyes I spent most of my childhood here is special Olympics and i love this place. I am planning a trip to go back up there just to see it i understand i need to contact the local police and see if i am allowed to because of all the damage that other people have done which is so sad. I have many memories up here and its sad that its sitting like this and noone has even thought about buying it and fixing it up. i would if i could afford it. i would in a heart beat. thank you for this story
Mon, 03/09/2015 - 2:44pm
Come on people, In Detrot a lone people can bye houses right out from people and convict then out into the streets . For just being late on paying taxes. You can not tell me that there is not a way to get a property back up and running like Sugar- loaf. Properties go into culection all the time . Now to the place in not even wearth what they are asking for, by the pictures i have seen it is in bad shape. the so call owner is trying to milk all the he can out of it. people are not bying the ski bissness but the great veiws and land. See you get rid of the bissness the land can be sold to the wealthy for double just for a house with a view. i have been looking to start a bed and breakfast out of old properties and the thing that gets me is that people sell the propertys for the land selling price to seperate adn put homes not the bissness it self. I would take this pproperty but it is way out of what i will pay. I will have to go on good luck on this and hope some one will stop and do something that has the fund i do not.
Beverly Bray
Thu, 11/03/2016 - 6:37am
I have stayed at Sugar Loaf several times. The last time was 2011. My niece made the reservations. We stayed at a condo. I think the pool was OK. This property would not work as a B&B. It has an indoor and outdoor pool. I think it was 1997 when I stayed in the hotel. It had little business then.