Sugar Loaf’s Downhill Run

Skiers navigate the moguls at Sugar Loaf ski resort in happier, and more solvent, days. (Flickr photo by Don Harrison)

Skiers navigate the moguls at Sugar Loaf ski resort in happier, and more solvent, days. (photo by Don Harrison)

Jacob Wheeler has three articles on Sugar Loaf in this week’s Bridge Magazine. Downhill Run for Sugar Loaf begins:

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.”

Read on for much more and also check out a look at what it takes to have a successful resort in northern Michigan (think summer) and his recounting of tried and failed efforts to re-open this fallen Leelanau angel.



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