Later this month, we could learn the true condition of Sugar Loaf Resort’s long-shuttered lodge and chairlifts. The lifts last carried skiers and snowboarders up the mountain 14 years ago. Leelanau County’s code inspector has permission to inspect the property even though he doesn’t know who owns the place.
At least three different parties have tried to re-open the resort since 2000.
“Everybody’s just sick of the dog and pony show,” says Karl Kitchen, who runs the “Friends of Sugar Loaf” Facebook group, a public forum for old photos and nostalgic memories of Sugar Loaf. “They’re sick of the circus that has surrounded who owns it, 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.”
Sugar Loaf is sandwiched between Lake Leelanau to the east and Lake Michigan to the west. Two generations of local families learned to ski there; it hosted high school state championships, and employed hundreds of local workers. But financial trouble and too little snowfall in the late ’90s doomed Sugar Loaf.
Since then, the mothballed resort has witnessed a revolving door of owners with dubious legal records. Their business escapades and trips in and out of jail have read like a crime novel. None of them have been able to re-open Sugar Loaf.
And now, it’s a mystery as to who actually owns the place.
Since late September, Liko Smith, has boasted that he owns Sugar Loaf and will re-open it next winter as a snowboard resort. Smith is an ex-felon and former Olympic level boxer from the West Coast. Smith fell flat in his attempt to acquire Sugar Loaf in the spring of 2010. So far he has presented no evidence to back his current claim that he owns the place.
Karl Kitchen met Liko Smith three and a half years ago. Kitchen hoped the charismatic visitor could put money and action behind his words.
“I was willing to help him out,” says Kitchen with a laugh. “After about a month it became apparent that maybe this wasn’t the greatest course of action. When he first started talking about, ‘we’re gonna have Xbox live in every room and Starbucks in the lounge’, I just face palmed and said ‘this guy just doesn't get it’.”
Back in 2010, Liko Smith fled Northern Michigan without paying his hotel and dinner bills at several local establishments. He was later convicted of embezzling $130,000 in room taxes for a failed hotel in South Lake Tahoe. Smith is now on the run from law enforcement in California for violating his probation.
Nevertheless, Smith has told Leelanau County’s code inspector that he will return this month and triumphantly reclaim Sugar Loaf.
Some Friends of Sugar Loaf are tired of waiting. In November, Egan McGlynn and her family trespassed up the mountain and planted a Peace Pole there. The Peace Pole was purchased in 2005 with Sugar Loaf in mind, but didn’t find a home on the mountain until now.
“This fall, in an effort to reenergize the notion that skiing could come back to Sugar Loaf, I reached out to the Friends of Sugar Loaf community and wondered what we could do to get this pole where it was intended to be, at the top of Sugar Loaf resort,” says McGlynn.
McGlynn hoped to ward off bad karma, but perhaps also lure the resort’s true owners out of the shadows by trespassing.
So who current owns Sugar Loaf?
Leelanau County officially considers Kate Wickstrom to be the owner, though she hasn’t paid taxes on the property in years. In March, Wickstrom transferred the deed back to former Sugar Loaf owner Remo Polselli, also a convicted felon and business associate of Liko Smith. But Polselli never filed it with the County, adding to the mystery.
Many hope that by Leelanau County inspecting the property, it will force the true owner to come forward. But what they really hope for is the County to condemn and seize the property, so perhaps one day it could reopen to Northern Michigan skiers and boarders.
Jacob Wheeler is the editor of the Glen Arbor Sun.