Michigan’s steepest ski run closed in 2000. What’s next for Sugar Loaf?
LEELANAU COUNTY — If fences truly make good neighbors, then Brenda Barnes is right to welcome the new enclosure that finally stretches along the edge of her townhouse complex parking lot.
Behind it sits the site of the former Sugar Loaf ski lodge complex — the centerpiece of a property that had been a favorite of skiers from across the Midwest since the resort came to life in 1964 and, for the last 22 years after it closed, to anyone curious enough to trespass.
But it is now gone, the fence rimming the demolition site, which is now a staging area for work crews left to crush the remaining asphalt and make topsoil runs up to the top of the former ski hill.
- Michigan’s northern state parks may add worker housing
- Fewer boaters and wine tasters. Will $5 gas sink Michigan summer tourism?
- Up North businesses are buying housing just to lure summer staff
Barnes doesn’t know what they’re doing up near the sites where lifts once would drop skiers next to runs with names like Manitou, Devil’s Elbow and Awful Awful that were legendary during Michigan winters.
In fact, no one who knows the next step for Michigan’s once-popular ski resort near the village of Cedar about 20 miles northwest of Traverse City is talking publicly about it.
In a way, it doesn’t matter. Sugar Loaf stayed on visitors’ minds long after its last workers locked the doors after the 2000 season and walked away, leaving beds still made, banquet mugs still in dishwasher trays, phones still on desks.
For many people around northern Michigan and beyond, seeing any sign of progress after two decades of progressive blight and unending questions about what will happen to Sugar Loaf is enough.
“People are speculating all over the place,” Barnes said. “Whenever we’re out eating or enjoying a glass of wine or walking on a trail ... everybody wants to know what we’ve heard, and they want to tell us what they’ve heard.”
For 20 years, the people who live nearby heard promises about the lodge. Plans were announced. Owners changed, more than once. And the property deteriorated, even as the community hoped, over and over, that it would be revived. Along the way, scores of vandals and the curious stepped through broken fencing to prowl the remnants of the resort, from empty pool to open guest rooms.
But in late 2021 — a year after an entity called SPV 45 LLC bought the ski site, saying it would remove the blighted buildings and clean up the property – demolition started.
And now, as work on the site continues, the Leelanau County community wonders what is next at the property that once was the county’s largest employer with 250 people working on site.
“It’s been kind of a rocky road, as far as ‘maybe this will be the good one,’” Barnes said of unfulfilled plans that included making it a year-round resort.
“We are definitely excited and optimistic.”
Tony Mattar owns another of the 72 Sugar Loaf townhouses built around the south end of the resort, sharing a driveway, and is president of the association’s board of directors, which has had to monitor every step in the resort’s decay.
Before the demolition, the only changes owners experienced were things like broken windows, leaking roofs and dangerous conditions inside the buildings.
Mattar said people are watching the work done on the property and starting to trust that the next step will be something good.
“So far,” Mattar told Bridge of the new owners, “they’ve kept their promises.”
Still a mystery
Ross Satterwhite, a Leland-based real estate adviser, represented the new owners in their Sugar Loaf purchase, and appeared at the recent annual meeting in the townhouses where owners gathered to meet him.
They asked questions, Mattar said, but didn’t get answers about the future. Satterwhite declined to speak to Bridge about the property.
It’s not the first mystery to surround Sugar Loaf, as regional news stories over many years lay out investigations into who controlled the decaying resort.
Part of the attraction is the history of Sugar Loaf, which drew visitors from many states to the steepest ski hill in Michigan. Up to 3,000 skiers a day hit the slopes there in the 1970s, making it a party spot, a sports destination and an economic driver for the county that also is home to Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.
Another reason for the attention was the scale of blight at the shuttered resort, in a county that’s home to about 22,000 people and miles of Great Lakes shoreline.
Barnes and her husband, James, chose the community 11 years ago for its recreation: The nearby dunes, golf course next door, bike trails and cross country ski trails, all close to water.
Until Sugar Loaf’s demolition, the Barneses and their neighbors had to drive past what she called an eyesore to reach their townhouses a few hundred yards away.
But once inside their vacation home, the couple could look out at the steep hills and tall pines and know they were in one of the state’s most beautiful areas.
It gets even better at the highest points of Sugar Loaf, Barnes said, where “you can see three lakes.”
SPV 45 LLC, which appears to be registered in Delaware, bought it — for an unrecorded price — in November 2020, about a year after Cleveland Township “adopted a new blight ordinance with the resort in mind,” Tim Stein, township supervisor, told Bridge in an email.
The sale involved 160 acres of ski hills and resort facilities — including an indoor pool, warming centers, hotel, restaurant and other buildings — along with a nearby airstrip. The land for the townhouses and The Old Course golf course had been separated from the original resort parcel.
The property has a taxable value of $1,040,202, Stein said.
A few months before the sale, in August 2020, the township asked a court to declare the land a public nuisance and issue a demolition order against the previous owner, Sweet Bread LLC, which had bought it in 2016 for $3 million, according to county records.
The township and Leelanau County, Stein said, had “spent 20 years trying to bring ‘new' life to the shuttered resort.” The litigation was halted when the property was sold to the buyer represented by Satterwhite.
And the blight ordinance’s goal was realized as the demolition took place at year-end 2021.
Beyond that, Stein said, the township, too, is in the dark on the property’s future.
“The township has had no discussions with the new owners about plans for future use of the property,” Stein said.
Karl Kitchen, a mechanic who worked at Sugar Loaf for six years until its last day of operation, said staff had a lot of signs that the 2000 season would be the resort’s last. The weather was too warm in March, sending muddy trails of water down the hills instead of skiers. Paychecks started to bounce.
The operation was winding down, but not the enthusiasm for what Sugar Loaf meant to the area: Winter jobs, allowing people in the summer haven to work year-round. Robust ski teams for high-schoolers. And lasting affection for the owners who reopened and expanded it in 1964, Pat and Jim Ganter.
Today, Kitchen can stand at the base of the east side of the hill and still point out key Sugar Loaf markers: the former Sugar Barn, which used to house the ski school. The pumphouse for the snowmaking machines. The big red wheel now embedded in sandy soil that used to move the lifts.
“All we could do is helplessly watch the place fall apart,” said Kitchen, who lives in Suttons Bay. “And we had been kind of watching the various efforts to reopen the place. … after the first couple, we kind of took it with a grain of salt after that.”
Kitchen started a Facebook group called Friends of Sugar Loaf 14 years ago, growing it to over 5,000 members.
Over the last few months, photos of people’s resort memorabilia like mugs and pencils or old images of former workers there have given way to photos and videos showing changes on the property.
“Looks so strange but better than the sad-looking buildings,” wrote one member.
“Love the Loaf,” chimes in another.
People across Michigan know the Leelanau area for Sleeping Bear Dunes, drives along M-22, the growing numbers of wineries and places like the historic Fishtown area in Leland, said Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, the state’s tourism promotion office.
“Beyond that, it doesn't have that big winter destination,” Lorenz said, weighing what the loss of Sugar Loaf meant to the state’s travel industry.
Today, said Jamie Jewell, director of the Leelanau Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, a lack of seasonal workers is the top issue among employers. Right behind that is the lack of housing for them and for people who want to live and work in the community.
In that environment — in a county where the unemployment rate is 3.9 percent, compared to the state’s overall rate of 4.3 percent — reopening Sugar Loaf to be an economic driver is not a priority, she said.
“We're in a very different economic time in general where everybody is short-staffed,” Jewell said, comparing the Sugar Loaf era to today. “So at this moment saying, ‘Oh, we're gonna do something and add X number of jobs’ isn't going to help the situation. It's going to hurt, to some degree, …. until we're able to really address some of the other issues like workforce housing in the area.”
Yet Lorenz said a major winter draw could help to make tourism more sustainable in Leelanau by balancing out the activity of summer months for the businesses and workers who could find opportunities outside of peak season.
Still, speculation on what should happen at Sugar Loaf keeps people talking. When they do, Brenda Barnes said, “everybody realizes the value of the property.”
The closest neighbors say they hope the new owners will welcome them onto the grassy hills with walking paths and cross country ski trails, and maybe some sledding for families.
Beyond that, Brenda said, “maybe we need a little cafe here” now that the two closest restaurants have closed.
Other options draw from the area’s growing wine industry.
“There might be a tasting room up there,” Brenda said, pointing to the top of the top of the former ski hill. “Or there might be a building that could be rented for a convention or a party or a wedding,”
Housing might be possible, too. Some suggest high-end housing on the hillsides, but Kitchen said the sandy soil and elevation may work against that. Others look at the space near the townhouses and wonder what kinds of homesites could be added between them and the golf course.
Some can’t shake the idea that Sugar Loaf could once again do what it did best.
Says Matter, the townhouse association president, “it’s still a great place for a ski hill.”
Covering the intersection of business and policy, and informing Michigan employers and workers on the long road back from coronavirus.
Thanks to Business Watch sponsors:
Support Bridge's nonprofit civic journalism. Donate today.
We’ve been there for you with daily Michigan COVID-19 news; reporting on the emergence of the virus, daily numbers with our tracker and dashboard, exploding unemployment, and we finally were able to report on mass vaccine distribution. We report because the news impacts all of us. Will you please support our nonprofit newsroom?